If We Collect Cigarette Butts, Does that Mean we Promote it?

cigarette law US environment photo

This is a guest post from Tom Szaky, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of TerraCycle, which provides free waste collection, and then turns that waste into sustainable products. .

Two years ago, I wrote a post asking all of you what you thought about collecting cigarette butts for recycling. Should TerraCycle do it? Does it promote smoking?

Why are we doing this?

Considering there are often piles of cigarette butts outside of bars, in the smoking areas of parks and outside public buildings, and even sometimes on the sidewalk, we think it’s time we offer a free alternative waste solution and get those areas cleaned up. This is why we just officially launched the first cigarette filter collection program in Canada, with the second opening soon in the US.

You Must be 19 or Over

The Cigarette Waste Brigade was a long time coming, and it was hotly debated. We eventually decided that we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to divert such a persistent, widespread waste stream, but we needed to clear a few hurdles first. Cigarettes are only available to people nineteen (Canada) or eighteen (US) years of age or older, and so we wanted to ensure that our program would be directed at the same age group. All of our materials address this – for example, there’s a button on the website for those who are 19 or over.

Unrecognized Eco-Hero's

There was also concern about promoting big tobacco. Tobacco companies face narrow restrictions on advertising and marketing, so we wanted to be sure that we weren’t imposing on these restrictions. You’ll notice that while our cigarette waste programs do have sponsors, they go unrecognized and unmentioned because this recycling program is not for the tobacco companies to use for marketing. It’s to clean up litter and keep the cigarette butts off the ground.

cigarette butts ground photo

Are we encouraging Cigarette Consumption?

This is the point of all of our programs. We get criticized often for “encouraging” junk food and sugary food consumption, but we don’t control what people consume. We’re here to provide a solution for what people are already interested in and the waste that comes from it. People don’t stop smoking because they can’t recycle their cigarette filters. The cigarette butts will be left behind no matter what – and we want to take care of them.

Cigarette Processing:

The butts are shredded and then melted into a liquid plastic like solution. That solution or 'melt' is run through a die at the end of an extruder and produces small pellets of about 1/4" in size. Pellet can be used in a variety of applications including plastic injection molded or blow molded products. Since cig butts do contain toxins (though the recycling process removes 99% of toxins) to be extra careful the plastic pellets will be used for industrial applications, primarily shipping pallets.

There is no Debate When it Comes to Waste

Just because something is widely debated or not popular doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be solved for. And if something is there to be solved for, I think we have to go ahead and work on a waste diversion for it. Smoking already has enough of a negative impact on health, and we don’t need to add to it by letting the cigarette butts find their way into our streets, our water, and our Earth. Something more positive can come of them, and it has to be done. For that reason, we couldn’t say no to launching the Cigarette Waste Brigade. To pass it up would have been against our mission of recycling everything, and with that in mind, creating the program was a no-brainer.

If We Collect Cigarette Butts, Does that Mean we Promote it?
An article describing the challenges and triumphs of collecting cigarette waste.

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