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Are Cigarette Butts Recyclable?

cigarette butts recyclable
Written by Joseph Mcqueen

4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered each year…

For centuries, human beings have taken part in the habit of smoking cigarettes. In various forms people have consumed tobacco and the addictive substance of nicotine. However, with new disposable vapes causing concern for the environment, it does beg the question: are cigarette butts recyclable? The truth is, this problematic form of litter that can be found in virtually every corner of the world.

According to the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, an estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered each year, making them the most common form of litter on the planet. While there has been a growing awareness of the negative impact of cigarette butts on the environment and public health, there is still confusion about whether or not cigarette butts are recyclable. We’re going to explore this, as well as examine the potential benefits and challenges of recycling them.

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What are Cigarette Butts made of?

Don’t be concerned if you don’t know what cigarettes are made out of – we’re going to go through that now. Cigarette butts are small, often overlooked pieces of litter that are composed of a combination of cellulose acetate and various chemicals. Cellulose acetate is a type of plastic that is used to create the filter found at the end of most cigarettes. This material is designed to trap some of the harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke, such as tar and carbon monoxide, before they are inhaled. That’s why anyone who smokes a cigarette without a filter is enhancing the damage it will have on the body. However, this filter material is also responsible for much of the environmental impact associated with cigarette butts. Earth Day writes:

“Cigarette butts are actually the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world, with about 4.5 trillion individual butts polluting our global environment… cigarette filters, or the plastic part of butts, can take up to 10 years to completely degrade”

Why Are Cigarette Butts a Problem?

As the quote suggests, when cigarette butts are discarded, they can take years to break down. During this time, they release harmful chemicals and microplastics into the environment. These chemicals can leach into soil and water, potentially harming wildlife and posing a risk to human health. In addition to the environmental impact, cigarette butts are also an eyesore, and their presence can contribute to a negative perception of a place. Many people assume that each part of a cigarette is recyclable, especially due to the fact that so many smokers gracefully throw them onto the floor all the time. However, this is simply not true. Why do more people not know about this? You wouldn’t throw a piece of plastic on the floor (at least most wouldn’t), so why is it so common to throw away a cigarette butt?

Recycling Cigarette Butts: Is It Possible?

While cigarette butts are made of plastic, they are not commonly recycled in most municipal recycling programs. This is due to the fact that the filter material is often contaminated with tobacco and other chemicals, which makes it difficult to separate and recycle. Additionally, the small size and lightweight nature of cigarette butts make them difficult to capture in recycling streams, and they can easily become mixed in with other forms of litter.

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Despite these challenges, there are a number of initiatives aimed at recycling cigarette butts. Some companies are experimenting with new technologies that can separate and recycle the plastic and other materials found in cigarette butts. These technologies range from mechanical separation methods to chemical processes that can dissolve the filter material, leaving behind the plastic and other components for recycling. In addition to these technological solutions, there are also grassroots efforts to recycle cigarette butts.

One example is the TerraCycle Cigarette Waste Brigade, which collects and recycles cigarette butts and other tobacco products. This program has partnered with a number of companies and organizations to collect and recycle cigarette waste, and has diverted millions of cigarette butts from landfills. There was even a situation recently, in a Swedish city, where they attempted to train a mass of crows to pick up the cigarette butts for rewards. The city in particular has around 1 million butts littered every year. They believe it will save 75% of the cleaning costs. Whilst this is still a trial concept, it highlights the possibility.

The Benefits of Recycling Cigarette Butts

It is evident that we’re now facing a climate emergency on Earth. Every single possible sign is pointing towards this. Well, the fact that cigarette butts are the most common form of littering, proves why dealing with this issue is so important. Thus, the benefits of recycling cigarette butts are numerous. Let’s take a look at some of these. 

Environmental protection

As we’ve established, cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item in the world, and they can take years to decompose. Recycling cigarette butts helps prevent them from ending up in landfills, waterways, and other natural habitats, protecting the environment and wildlife. In the UK, 52% of smokers believed that throwing a cigarette butt down the drain was acceptable. This highlights the issue at hand. People are not aware of the problem, and this needs to be resolved. 1 cigarette alone is extremely toxic to water animals. 

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Resource conservation

Recycling is also majorly important for re-using integral resources. Recycling cigarette butts can recover valuable materials, such as plastic and paper fibers, that can be reused in other products, reducing the need for new materials and conserving natural resources. 


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Gas emissions

By recycling cigarette butts, less waste goes to landfills, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and extend the life of landfills. 

Public health benefits

Cigarette butts can contain toxic chemicals that can harm the environment and human health. Recycling cigarette butts can help reduce exposure to these chemicals and improve public health. In addition, the simple aesthetic of a city or location can be improved massively by a reduction of thrown cigarette butts. 

Challenges to Recycling Cigarette Butts

Whilst this is all completely true, the simple fact is that recycling cigarette butts is not happening enough right now. But why is this? Well, recycling would seem like an obvious solution to the problem of cigarette butt litter. However, doing this can be difficult for a number of reasons.

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Contamination

One of the biggest challenges to recycling cigarette butts is contamination. As we’ve said, cigarette filters are made of a combination of cellulose acetate and various chemicals, including tar and other toxins. These chemicals can make the filters difficult to recycle, as they can contaminate other materials in the recycling stream. Additionally, the filters may be contaminated with the saliva and other bodily fluids of the smoker, which can pose a health risk to recycling workers.

Size

Cigarette butts are also difficult to recycle because of their small size. They are lightweight and can easily become mixed in with other forms of litter. This can make it difficult to capture cigarette butts in recycling streams, and they can end up in landfills or the environment.

Lack of infrastructure

Another challenge to recycling cigarette butts is the lack of infrastructure. Many recycling programs are not equipped to handle cigarette butts, and they are not accepted in most municipal recycling programs. This lack of infrastructure means that cigarette butts are often not properly disposed of, and end up as litter.

Lack of awareness

Finally, there is a lack of awareness about the problem of cigarette butt litter and the potential for recycling. Many people do not realise that cigarette butts are not biodegradable and can take years to break down. They may also be unaware that recycling cigarette butts is possible. Education certainly needs to increase if we want to globally deal with the issue of cigarette butts. 

Hope

Whilst recycling cigarette butts is difficult due to a number of factors – including contamination, small size, lack of infrastructure, and lack of awareness – the environmental impact of cigarette butt litter is significant. Therefore, the efforts to recycle these items are important for reducing the amount of litter in the environment, conserving resources, and creating economic opportunities in the recycling industry. With the BinTheButt campaigning, and others like it, gaining traction, the awareness of the problem is certainly increasing. Plus, new technologies and infrastructure are being developed, so it is possible that recycling cigarette butts could become more common in the coming years. Whether it be done by flying crows or hard work, recycling cigarette butts is integral to life’s survival on Earth.

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About the author

Joseph Mcqueen

Joseph is a cannabis journalist in the UK. His search and love for the truth in the cannabis industry is what drives him to write.