What happens to all the cigarette butts thrown to the ground? Can cigarette butts be recycled?
-Katie, Tyler, TX
All those cigarette butts can meet one of a few fates, none of them particularly sustainable and most of them downright harmful.
You can walk around in nearly every outdoor public place and spot cigarette butts — in flowerbeds, along the curb, in gutters, in the middle of the very sidewalk you are walking on. Besides being an eyesore, the butts have to be cleaned up by property owners and municipalities (your tax dollars at work), or by volunteer programs like the International Coastal Cleanup. But cleaning captures just a portion of the hundreds of thousands of tons (845,000 tons annually worldwide, by one estimate) that end up as litter each year. The rest gets carried away by stormwater run-off and deposited on dry land and in waterways. They persist in the environment because they are made of cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plastic. Butts that end up in water can leach nicotine and other chemicals harmful to aquatic life, and may be ingested by animals.
A sustainable recycling solution is sorely needed because trillions of cigarettes are smoked each year worldwide. Not all of the butts end up as litter, but proper disposal still means they go to landfills. Recycling options are still extremely limited; one of the only programs available is TerraCycle’s cigarette waste mail-in recycling program. Unless manufacturers develop a more recyclable cigarette, the best smokers can do is to make sure their butts are properly disposed of in ashtrays, receptacles, and trashcans. Otherwise, legislators like those in Louisiana and Illinois might step in to make sure the financial and legal costs will help prevent the environmental costs of cigarette litter.