For the Conservation Curious

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Toxic Butts to Treasure? June 8, 2012

This morning I read an article about how TerraCycle, a company out of Trenton, NJ that is well-known for upcycling products, wants to recycle cigarette butts and turn them into plastic pallets and other items. 

My first reaction was, “That’s great!” since there are so many butts on the ground and in our rivers and streams.  Trillions a year to be exact.  The chemicals trapped in the filter can leach into water bodies and kill off aquatic life.  So if we could incentivize people to not litter with their cigarette butts and rather send them to a recycling plant, aren’t we doing a good thing?  Sure, it would be best if no one smoked at all, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

And as someone who does trash pick-ups in her community several times a year, I know that cigarette butts account for the majority of trash in some areas (along with chip bags – which TerraCycle recycles, fast food wrappers, bottles, and of all things, small packets of soy and duck sauce from Chinese restaurants).  Why people do not think cigarette butts are litter is beyond me.  People I know who claim to care about the environment and would never throw a bottle out the window seem to have no problem throwing their used cigarettes on the ground.  Why is that?  Where did that mentality come from and how can we change it?

But I digress.  As the article points out, there may be a major problem with recycling cigarette butts.  If all those toxic chemicals are concentrated into the filter, how can you make a product out of them that would be safe for people to use?  And what happens when that product reaches the end of its useful life?  Will it then contribute its own form of pollution to the environment?  If used cigarette filters are essentially toxic waste, can they ever be safe to handle? 

I would like to think that we have the brains and technology to figure this one out.  If TerraCycle can recycle cigarette butts (and used chewing gum, which is another thing the article mentioned) then I will see a lot fewer of them mucking up my city.  If turning toxic trash into treasure is possible, then maybe it’s not impossible to hope that my dad will quit smoking.  I will cross my fingers for both!