There are about 6 trillion cigarette butts produced every year, creating about 1.2 trillion tons of cigarette butt waste. Trillions of butts end up in the environment as litter every year, many making their way into waterways and those numbers are expected to increase by as much as 50 percent by 2025 as the world population grows.
Cigarette butts are more than just pesky litter, their filters contain heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, nickel and cadmium and since they take many years to break down, that gives those metals plenty of time to leach into the soil and water.
An engineer at RMIT University in Australia, Dr. Abbas Mohajerani, has come up with a way to recycle cigarette butt waste into something that could help the environment instead: bricks.
“I have been dreaming for many years about finding sustainable and practical methods for solving the problem of cigarette butt pollution," said Mohajerani.
He and his team found a way to incorporate cigarette butt waste into brick making that not only gets that waste out of the environment, but it also makes cheaper and less energy-intensive bricks. When cigarette butts are added to clay bricks, the energy needed to fire them was cut by up to 58 percent. The bricks were lighter and were better insulators, too, meaning they could help cut household cooling and heating demands, all while keeping the same strong properties of traditional bricks.
When the cigarette butts are fired in the bricks, the heavy metals and other pollutants are trapped and immobilized in the solid block so they can't leach. “Incorporating butts into bricks can effectively solve a global litter problem as recycled cigarette butts can be placed in bricks without any fear of leaching or contamination," said Mohajerani.
Mohajerani estimates that if just 2.5 percent of the bricks made worldwide every year incorporated just one percent cigarette butt waste, it would offset global cigarette production. They'd be cheaper to produce thanks to the energy savings, which increase as the cigarette butt content increases, and they'd remove a source of pollution from the environment.
There have been other ideas for recycling cigarette butts, like using the filters to create energy storage technology, anti-rust coatings and more. The fact is, the best solution will be a decrease in cigarette production so that fewer of these are out in the world at all, but until then, getting this widespread source of litter into a useful product instead of sitting in the environment is a great idea.