I’ve got good news and bad news on cigarette butts. There is a simple solution to a big problem.
Trashed cigarette butts are one of the most rampant of all human wastes. Over 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded every year.(1) In beach clean ups around the world, they are the most picked up item.(2) Many people aren’t aware that 95% of cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate (a plastic!). Many assume that you can throw a cigarette butt on to the ground and it will biodegradable. Alas, this is not the case. Acetate does not break down biologically, instead it photodegrades into particles that do not fit back into the ecological cycles. (3) And these particles ain’t good!
Toxic to Marine Life
A 2011 study done by marine biologist at the University of San Diego clearly showed that the cornucopia of over 4000 chemicals in cigarette butt lechate are toxic to marine life.(4)
While the environmental impact of a single disposed cigarette filter is minimal, there were 1.35 trillion filtered cigarettes manufactured in the United States in 2007, and of these, more than 360 billion were consumed here . It is estimate that 875 million tons of cigarette butts hit the biosphere every year. (5)
Cigarette Butts: Plastic, Toxic, Marine Debris Photo by NOAA Marine Debris Program
From Pollution to Solution
So that’s the bad news.
The good news… is that there is a solution! Its as simple as packing that butt into a bottle. It’s what’s called an Ecobrick. In this case, a Butt-Ecobrick! Perhaps, we could even call it a Butt-Brick.
Ecobricks are made by packing non-biological waste (like wrappers, bags, and butts) into a plastic bottle to make an indefinitely reusable building block. I am a big advocate of Ecobricks and make them with my own plastic. There’s a massive movement of people using them to take responsibility for their plastics.
I use them to build my furniture and my home garden. You’ll be seeing lots of posts by me on them. You can jump right to our site www.ecobricks.org for the full low down.
A trunk full of cigarette butts collected from Wrightsville Beach, NC (Count: 40,827). (Photo Credit: Danielle Richardet). You can use any type of bottle to make your cigarette butt ecobrick!
Cigarette Butts, Solved.
Personally, I don’t smoke, but my friends Riri and George do. George got me inspired to write this essay when I heared that over the last two years he’s packed several dozen ecobricks from butts and other plastics at his office. For Riri, who lives at house that sees lots of visitors and parties, Ecobricking her cigarettes is definitely a solution– mainly because there’s so many of them and just nothing else to do.
As you can see in these photos, Riri packs soft plastics with the ecobricks to take up space. The result is a remarkably dense and solid ecobrick that can be used for a whole bunch of exciting applications. Best of all, the toxic acetate is 100% contained!
Cob and Ecobrick Building
Ecobricks that are made with cigarette butts aren’t pretty. Ecobricks with butts thus don’t make the best modular furniture because they aren’t so nice to look at, but they do make good building blocks for gardens and walls. There’s tons of cool things you can build this way. We have a whole section on our web site dedicate tocob building. The beauty of cob building is that the plastics are buried into the bench or wall. Because plastics do not breakdown without the presence of light or heat, those ecobricks effectively sequester the plastic for decades or centuries.
And… if the bench is broken down, the ecobricks can be taken out and used again!
Of course, the real solution is to stop smoking… but in the meantime, now you know what to do.
1. Novotny TE, Lum K, Smith E, et al . Cigarettes butts and the case for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2009;6:1691–705.
2. Cigarettes and Cigarette Filters Collected in the United States in the International Coastal Cleanup, 1996–2007. Source: Ocean Conservancy 2007.
3. Cigarettes Butts and the Case for an Environmental Policy on Hazardous Cigarette Waste
Thomas E. Novotny 1,2,*, Kristen Lum 1, Elizabeth Smith 1, Vivian Wang 1 and Richard Barnes 1
4. Slaughter E, Gersberg RM, Watanabe K, et al, Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish, Tobacco Control 2011;20:i25-i29. http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i25
5. Carlozo, LR. Cigarettes: 1.7 billion pounds of trash. Chicago Tribune 2008.