While your own butt may be biodegradable, cigarette butts are not.
We’re tired of picking your butt.
Put your butt where it belongs.
Now that we’ve gotten a few butt jokes out of the way… Most people think cigarette butts are made out of cotton and harmless to litter, but butts are actually non-biodegradable toxic plastic that can stick around in our waterways for up to ten years! Read on to learn more about this issue and to see how two global NGOs have found a recycling solution.
- 2.3 MILLION CIGARETTE BUTTS ARE LITTERED AROUND THE WORLD EVERY MINUTE.
- 80% OF CIGARETTES PRODUCED ARE LITTERED.
- CIGARETTE BUTTS COMPRISE UP TO 50% OF URBAN LITTER, AND ARE THE MOST LITTERED ITEM IN THE WORLD.
- CIGARETTE BUTTS ARE NOT BIODEGRADABLE, TAKING BETWEEN 18 MONTHS - 10 YEARS TO DEGRADE, AND ARE ONLY RECYCLABLE THROUGH RARE AND HYPER-SPECIFIED RECYCLING STREAMS.
Why are you so obsessed with my butt?
Plastic straws have been gaining media and political attention, introducing many to the global plastic pollution crisis, but actually, cigarette butts are the most-littered item in the world, as a recent NBC News article highlights.
What most people don’t know is that littered cigarette butts are actually PLASTIC POLLUTION, and are a driving factor of our global plastic pollution crisis. 4.5 trillion cigarettes are discarded annually, which is 2 billion pounds of plastic. Unlike most recyclable plastics, cigarette butts can only be recycled through rare and hyper-specified recycling streams like the one TerraCycle provides.
Throughout its working life, a cigarette filter defends a smoker’s lungs from tar, nicotine, phenols, cadmium, lead and arsenic among other toxins and carcinogens released into our waterways when butts are littered! Cigarette smoke itself releases more than 4,000 chemicals, so if butts are discarded while still lit, those toxins are also finding their way into the air and water around us.
Not only can birds and marine life ingest discarded butts, which accumulate up the food chain and end up on our plates, but these toxins also directly pollute our water systems, making this a public health concern.
What’s in my butt?
Cigarette butts contain the paper wrapping around the cigarette, maybe some tobacco residue, and the foam filter. While it is a common misconception that the filter is made out of cotton, it is actually 98% cellulose acetate plastic fiber. Cellulose acetate is a plastic synthesized by treating cellulose from wood pulp with acetic anhydride, which creates strands of fiber that can be densely packed to form a foam tube.
These filters of dense plastic fibers are not biodegradable, which means that they won’t organically breakdown like a banana peel in your home compost. Rather, they gradually decompose in exposure to UV radiation from the sun and physical weathering, degrading into smaller and smaller pieces of microplastics more easily consumed by marine life.
Despite this hazard, cellulose acetate has remained the dominant material for cigarette filters because it’s cost-effective, provides a uniform appearance, and effectively filters target toxins while maintaining the acetate flavor consumers love.
So what are you going to do with my butt?
To address this issue, global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste, TerraCycle, has decided to include cigarette butts as one of the highly specialized items they recycle. When schools, businesses or individuals mail their collected cigarette butts (or other tobacco-related items) to a TerraCycle facility, the components are separated and repurposed.
The tobacco and paper are first separated for composting, then the cellulose acetate filter is cleaned, melted, and cut into pellets. The pellets can then be combined with other forms of plastic to produce of plastic items like ashtrays, industrial shipping pallets or plastic lumber.
While other solutions have been proposed, including a cleanup tax on cigarettes for the consumer, biodegradable butts, and even mixing encapsulated butts into asphalt to pave roads, properly sealing and recycling the butts is the only option that addresses the root of the plastic pollution issue: the littering and the mindset that allows for littering.
The TerraMar Project and Oceanic Global have joined forces on their #NoMoreButts campaign to guide smokers and the global coastal tourism industry in reducing their plastic footprint by promoting TerraCycle’s solution. Using their network and audience, the two global NGOs are connecting businesses around the world with the tools they need to adopt sustainable cigarette butt waste management and the marketing incentives for businesses to benefit directly from their sustainable operating practices.
TAKE ACTION: Don’t be a butt.
- Take the survey to help inform future educational campaigns and put your ocean hero skills to the test on Questions 3&4!
- Recycle cigarette butts around you.
- Businesses: Order customizable receptacles and learn how start collecting and recycling cigarette butts today!
- Individuals: Properly collect your butts using sealed pocket ashtrays to recycle through TerraCycle, otherwise at least make sure not to litter them.
- Organize a beach cleanup near you. Collect cigarette butts separately, and reach out to The TerraMar Project for free shipping labels for sending them in.
- Spread awareness. As always, spreading awareness of an issue helps increase public attention and policy-makers will be more likely to respond. Share this article via your channels and teach your network how to be more harmonious humans!! <3
 Cigarette butts fact sheet, Australia