Recycling Mystery: Cigarettes

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As Earth911 recently reported, cigarettes can now be recycled in the U.S. thanks to a new partnership between TerraCycle, a company that finds recycling solutions for items that aren’t easy to recycle, and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. TerraCycle collects discarded cigarettes that people mail to them through their Cigarette Waste Brigadeand turns the filters into industrial products such as shipping pallets and plastic lumber.

This program is unique and tackles a real environmental problem, since cigarette waste can be found on most roadways and is very common at beaches. The real mystery here is how a cigarette becomes a new product like a shipping pallet. To find out, Earth911 talked with Ernie Simpson, Global VP of Research & Development for TerraCycle.

How Cigarette Recycling Works

To find a viable recycling solution for a huge waste stream such as cigarettes, TerraCycle had to consider processes that could handle large volumes of material. The method the company’s researchers settled on can be broken down into a few main steps.

“We collect the filters and sterilize them through irradiation,” Simpson said. “Then we separate the tobacco from the filter and paper.”

To separate the parts of the cigarette, the materials are shredded. Afterward, the tobacco and paper are both composted, and TerraCycle sends the tobacco to a special composting facility that only composts tobacco products. After that, they’re left with just the filters, the part of the cigarette that gets recycled into new materials.

“The filter is cellulose acetate, a plastic that can be recycled with other plastic materials,” Simpson explained. “We blend the cellulose acetate with other recyclable materials. Then we use those to create different items.”

To create the appropriate blend of plastic, TerraCycle mixes the filters with other plastic they have in house. Once mixed, the plastic is turned into pellets, which can then be molded into new products.

“Creating plastic pallets for shipping made from cigarette filters is really cool,” Simpson said, and it’s certainly not something you see everyday.

Ensuring Recycled Filters Are Safe

One potential concern about this process is safety: will any contaminants make their way into the new products?

“We have tested our formulations for everything from possible food contact to heavy metal contamination to nicotine contamination,” Simpson explained. His team has also tested for any microbes or bacteria to ensure to products’ safety.

“By diluting the filters with other plastic material you dilute any other agents. The other materials have no nicotine or anything of that sort, so simply by blending [the filters and other plastic] at a certain ratio you can reduce the presence of any of those materials,” Simpson said.

To be on the safe side, TerraCycle never uses recycled cigarette filters in any consumer products that might come into contact with food or other consumables. All filters find their way into new industrial products.

Get Involved

TerraCycle hopes to collect and recycle hundreds of millions of cigarette butts through the Cigarette Waste Brigade, and the recycling process will make a significant impact when it comes to reducing waste. Creating pallets and other products out of cigarette waste instead of virgin plastic reduces both the amount of waste in landfills and the quantity of virgin materials needed to make new products.

To get involved and start collecting cigarette waste, visit TerraCycle’s Cigarette Waste Brigade webpage. Anyone 21 years of age or older can start collecting as an individual or part of a group. You could also find out if any anti-litter groups in your area are already collecting cigarette butts and team up with them. Setting up a collection at your workplace or a business you frequent might be another good option.

Want to learn how to recycle other unusual materials? Check Out: Recycling Mystery: Toothbrushes and Toothpaste Tubes

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