Cheryl McMullen, Freelance writer

January 25, 2015

4 Min Read
Municipalities Look to Reduce Toxic Waste by Recycling Cigarette Butts

Cigarette litter mars landscapes, beaches and sidewalks across the country, but municipalities are working to reduce the toxic waste plaguing America’s public places.

The problem is multifaceted. 

Most cigarette filters contain plastic—cellulose acetate—making them less degradable. The unsightly butts accumulate over time, becoming a nuisance and an environmental pollution issue. 

So what's a city to do?

Keep America Beautiful (KAB) is finding success with its Cigarette Litter Prevention Program, which recently announced it is offering 50 grants, totaling $275,000 to  local governments, park and recreation areas and private enterprises such as downtown associations. 

It is important to reduce the environmental strain on landscapes and waterways, said Jennifer Jehn, KAB president and CEO, in a statement. “Our Cigarette Litter Prevention Program is making a significant difference in communities where the program is being implemented because of public education in tandem with access to receptacles.”

Cigarette waste accounts for 38 percent of all litter, making it the country's most-littered item, according to "Litter in America," a KAB 2009 study of littering behavior. The U.S. improperly discards an estimated 195 million pounds of cigarette butts annually.

Over the past eight years, Connecticut-based KAB says its program cut cigarette litter by half based on local measurements taken in the first four to six months after implementation. In fact, KAB claims an average 48 percent reduction of cigarette litter in communities implementing the program in 2013. Cities that maintain their programs are sustaining their success, with litter-reduction programs improving by an additional 34 percent in 2014.

In an effort to reduce its portion of the world's most prevalent form of litter, the City of New Orleans rolled out the country's first city-wide collection system in July.

The city, along with its Downtown Development District and New Jersey-based recycler TerraCycle, installed 50 new cigarette-recycling receptacles on several downtown blocks.

TerraCycle, which uses difficult-to-recycle products in its process, has a nationwide program, along with New Orleans and other cities, that recycles cigarette butts into plastic pellets later used to make products, such as industrial pallets.

The city and tax payers pay nothing for the program, which is an extension of TerraCycle's Cigarette Waste Brigade and sponsored by Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company. In fact, to help fund green jobs throughout the city, the recycler donates $4 for every pound of cigarette waste collected. TerraCycle supplies the receptacles and the cigarette company covers any ongoing costs. 

Salem, Mass. rolled out its program, a first in the cigarette butt battle in New England and includes dozens of cigarette-recycling receptacles installed around the city, identifiable by stickers that read, “Recycle Your Butts Here.”

Mayor Kim Driscoll is excited that Salem is among the first to partner in this "innovative endeavor”

"Having these receptacles available should provide us one more tool in our efforts to keep our city clean, while maintaining our commitment to being green and eliminating our overall trash output,” says Driscoll.

The city pays nothing for the program and TerraCycle donates $2 for every pound of cigarette waste collected, giving $1 to Salem Main Streets and $1 to KAB.

More recently, in December, Portland, Maine kicked off its own program, which uses containers called "The Sidewalk Buttler" designed by local business owner Mike Roylos, who grew tired of seeing smokers toss their cigarettes outside his downtown restaurant. Roylos partnered with various public and private entities to roll out the program.

Sarah Lakeman, sustainability expert for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said some consider cigarette butts a "socially acceptable form of litter."

"If you saw someone continually tossing out cans on the side of the road or bottles, you would think 'what's going on?' But with this you kind of look the other way," Lakeman says. 

Education is key, she said, and a larger paradigm shift is needed. 

While it may be too soon to see the program's impact on cigarette waste, the city is hopeful. 

“We are optimistic that the Buttler Program will be an effective way to prevent the mess by encouraging smokers to dispose of their cigarette butts properly," says Troy Moon, Portland's Environmental Programs Manager.  We’ll be watching closely to see how things go.”

As Roylos is looking to make some larger receptacles for high-traffic areas, it may be indicative of what's to come.

“Until people no longer smoke in the city, the ‘Sidewalk Buttlers’ are a no-brainer solution that will help clean up our streets, prevent pollution, provide work, reduce waste, and once again place Portland on the map for its sustainability efforts,” Lakeman says.

About the Author(s)

Cheryl McMullen

Freelance writer, Waste360

Cheryl McMullen is a freelance journalist from Akron, Ohio, covering solid waste collection and transfer for Waste360.

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