Cigarette butts: Waste or resource?

litter prevention

Shannon Mead, Executive Director, No More Butts Ltd asks is recycling cigarette butts a waste of time, or a waste resource? 

Cigarette butts. Not only are they unsightly, strewn haphazardly in gutters or, worse, in piles next to the bin, but they are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that can take up to 15 years to break down. 

It is estimated that up to 8.9 billion butts are littered in Australia annually. For years, environmental and land care groups have found cigarette butts to be their number one item collected in litter audits. 

Data shows that many people still are not aware that tobacco filters are a problem. About 12,000 fibrous strands of cellulose acetate are wrapped in a tipping paper, as part of the construction of the modern-day cigarette. Almost all cigarette sticks sold commercially have with a plastic filter end. 

Cigarette butts absorb several heavy metal toxins that immediately leach into our waterways and soil systems. What’s more is our birds and wildlife often mistake the little white poison tips for their next nibble. If you have ever seen a picture of an animal suffering from the ingestion of plastics, cigarette butts will certainly be among the rubbish.

Could butts be useful?

Over three years ago, when I returned from a holiday to Greece, decimated by the unsightly impact of (cigarette) butts on the beach, I wondered if anyone had thought about using these butts for something else. 

“Do they have a value?” I asked myself. I quizzed our incoming board, “Can we solve another problem, while creating a solution for this one?” That led me down many rabbit holes into the world of science and academia, a world far removed from mobile phone sales and hospitality!

Can they be recycled?

cigarette butt recycling
A cigarette butt and biochar experiment after 48 hours.

Technically, yes. Several years ago, TerraCycle Australia was involved in an initiative to recycle cigarette butts, sending millions of them overseas for processing, using a method known as plastic extrusion. 

They were turned into plastic pellets (feedstock), which was then sold overseas to be used to create items such as ash trays and park benches. In more recent times, an Australian company used recycled plastic to make furniture, producing its own proof-of-concept bench, made from cigarette butts, but this never scaled. 

Over the past couple of years, some Australian councils have continued to pay to have their cigarette butts be recycled, but there is limited visibility into the methods being used to recycle them now. 

Professor Abbas from RMIT dedicated years to researching if shredded cigarette butts could be used as a composite material in clay-fired bricks. Using these insights and conclusions, No More Butts worked with Boral and RMIT over the past couple of years to investigate various programs and methods to deal with cigarette butt litter and waste, by identifying the percentage of butts per cubic tonne without any impact on the structural integrity of the concrete or creating leachate or other future issues from the composite product. We are seeking nominations for our first field test location.

No More Butts partnered with Fungi Solutions again this year to expand on leadership and research in a program funded by Sustainability Victoria. The purpose of the program is to create a supply chain from participating businesses and aims to investigate the toxic profile of mycelium-remediated cigarette butts as a replacement product for items such as expanded polystyrene (waffle pods, or insulation panels), or other outside-the-box ideas such as a natural biodegradable box that consumers and businesses could collect their butts in.

Pyrolysis – a hot topic

We think another potential method warrants investigation. From our provisional research through a RMIT student program, it looks like biochar could be created from cigarette butts. 

Biochar is a type of coal with various different applications, including regenerating nutrient-poor soil. This is done through pyrolysis which deconstructs bio-polymers through extreme heat. This transformation of cigarette butts can help sequester atmospheric carbon over the next several centuries.

Pyrolysis seems to be caught up in the pros and cons of advanced recycling for other plastics.

Return scheme push

In February 2023, the South Australian Greens introduced a Bill that would hold tobacco companies responsible to establish a recycling program to address cigarette butt waste, similar to the state’s current bottle and can recycling scheme. 

Spain has recently passed legislation putting the onus onto ‘Big Tobacco’ to collect and transport cigarette butt waste for treatment. Cigarette butt recycling programs and government initiatives have also been put in place across countries such as Canada and Ireland. 

Do butts have a value? 

Do cigarette butts actually have a value? Is a smoked butt more valuable, or cheaper, than other feedstock and raw materials? 

We are now all acutely aware that we cannot simply hope that problematic plastics go away by setting up a collection scheme and hope the rest will fall into place. Any cigarette butt recycling scheme would need a market ready to receive butts on a large scale before it is operationalised.

Even if passionate businesses and councils could work out the logistics and the whole process didn’t create high emissions, the jury is still out on the best way to deal with the cocktail of compostable and non-biodegradable items, such as the paper and residual tobacco, in addition to the plastic filter.

While it is clear that they don’t belong in the environment, will the benefits of a scheme that creates a valuable commodity out of this waste stream be more impactful than simply leaving them in landfill?

Will any of the options above be the answer? Or will our dream of creating a high value product from cigarette butts go up in smoke? 

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