Recycling gives trashed cigarette butts new life


Recycling entrepreneur Tom Szaky is stubbing out the world’s cigarette problem — one butt at a time.

The 30-year-old who dropped out of Princeton University to start his innovative firm, TerraCycle, in Trenton, New Jersey, says there is no such thing as trash, even when you are talking about the contents of ashtrays.

In a program started in May in Canada and now running from the United States to Spain, TerraCycle collects cigarette butts from volunteers and turns them into plastic, which can be used for anything, even ashtrays themselves. The discarded cigarettes, which litter countries around the world, are first broken up, with the paper and remaining tobacco composted.

The filter, made of a plastic called cellulose acetate, is melted down and turned into an ingredient for making a wide range of industrial plastic products, such as pallets, the trays used to ship heavy goods.

The tobacco industry, happy to get some decent publicity, pays TerraCycle. Volunteer collectors win points per butt that can then be redeemed as contributions to charities.

Sidewalks start looking cleaner, and TerraCycle, which sells recycled products to retailers such as Walmart and Whole Foods, gets more business.

TerraCycle has a similarly creative view on all manner of other refuse that has tended to be bracketed as impossible to recycle and is instead sent to landfills.

Juice sachets, plastic bottles, pens, coffee capsules, candy wrappers, toothbrushes and computer keyboards are all grist for TerraCycle’s mill.

Some items go to classic recycling, meaning they are used purely as material for a wholly new product.

Others are upcycled, which means the shape of the piece of garbage is retained and incorporated into a new product. For example, candy wrappers, complete with their logos, are used to bind books, or are joined together to make backpacks.

“The purpose of TerraCycle is to make things that are nonrecyclable recyclable,” Szaky said at his Trenton headquarters. Soon they’ll be doing chewing gum and dirty diapers, but Szaky said his “personal favorite” is used cigarettes.

Expect to see the project spread across Europe and possibly Mexico in the next four months, Szaky said.

It takes between 1,000 and 2,000 butts to make a plastic ashtray, and more than 200,000 to make a garden chair. Not that there is any shortage of supplies: 37 percent of the world’s litter is in cigarette butts, with up to 2 trillion thrown out yearly, Szaky said.