Terracycle Finds the Silver Lining in Your Disgusting Smoking Habit

TerraCycle gathers and transforms the trillions of cigarettes consumed worldwide each year.

Terracycle
Amy DuFault is a writer and editor whose work has been published in EcoSalon, Huffington Post, Ecouterre, Organic Spa, Coastal Living, Yahoo!,

Even the most passionate recycler will probably admit that there are certain things he or she might throw away from time to time—like cigarettes.

Enter TerraCycle.

Founded in 2001 by CEO Tom Szaky, TerraCycle's anti-butt campaign, dubbed Cigarette Waste Brigade, is a essentially a war on the seemingly countless discarded cancer sticks that litter our beaches, streets, and waterways. All parts of the extinguished cigarettes—the filters, the outer plastic packaging, the inner foil packaging, the rolling paper, and, yes, even the ashes—are collected by registered "brigades," which are located all over the world. The brigades ship the cigarette detritus, which melts and recycles then into plastic lumber, pallets, bins, and ashtrays. A house, for example, could be framed from this type of recycled material.

Sponsored by the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, TerraCycle's Cigarette Brigade aims to work with more than 20 million people already collecting various types of waste for them in over 20 countries.

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“We certainly hope that TerraCycle is becoming a global spotlight on the issue of waste in our society!,” said Albe Zakes, the company’s Global VP and Media Relations. “Education and awareness are the basis of evolution and we find that many average consumers are simply unaware of the massive size and impact of waste in our consumer driven economy.”

TakePart checked in with Zakes to see how the Cigarette Waste Brigade is doing, if Terracylcle aims to create a new waste consciousness, and more.

TakePart: How did your Cigarette Waste Brigade program come about?

Zakes: TerraCycle’s mission is to eliminate the idea of waste. Because garbage does not exist in the natural world (in nature all waste is reused), we feel that man-made systems can—and should—operate on the same principle. We hope to accomplish this lofty goal by providing free, easy ways to collect otherwise "non-recyclable" waste streams and developing sustainable, cost-effective processes to reuse this material through upcycling or recycling. We began this effort by focusing on common food and beverage packaging such as drink pouches and granola bar wrappers and have since expanded to collect over 60 different waste streams.

Tobacco related waste—especially the filter or "butt"—is widely considered the most ubiquitous waste stream in the world. A recent Keep America Beautiful study showed that 38 percent of all roadside waste was tobacco related, by far the largest contributor. At Ocean Conservancy's annual International Coastal Clean Up Day, cigarette filters are always among the top items collected from beaches—with over 50 million being collected in the last 20 years. Estimates show that trillions of cigarettes are consumed every year.

TakePart: What do you say to those people who snub some of the packaging/trash you recycle?

Zakes: Well everyone is entitled to their opinion and we respect everyone's view. However, TerraCycle is providing free collection systems for billions of pieces of garbage that would otherwise go to landfill or worse. 

Furthermore, we pay communities to help collect this material and have donated over $5 million to schools and nonprofits since 2008. In addition to the free recycling fundraisers, we provide lesson plans, curricula, DIY and art projects and many more ways for teachers and parents to engage children in environmental responsibility and resource conservation in a fun, educational manner. So it is hard to imagine people opposing what we do, once they fully understand the reach and impact of our programs. If they still have concerns, I know thousands of teachers, parents, and community organizers who would be glad to tell them about the positive effect TerraCycle has on their communities.

While these programs are sponsored by specific brands, they accept used products and waste packaging regardless of brand. So whether a family or school chooses to support mainstream or major manufacturers or smaller, value-driven companies we accept the waste regardless. These programs are thus far from brand loyalty or sales incentive programs, they are ways to recycle materials that would otherwise go to waste.

TakePart: With American Spirit funding this, do you think people will see it as a marketing ploy for a cigarette manufacturer?

Zakes: That is a potential concern—but the same could be said for any CSR initiative started by any company. It is absolutely urgent that major manufacturers—regardless of how they are viewed in terms of social and environmental commitment—start to take responsibility over the impact of their products and services. TerraCycle is proud to help large companies understand and overcome their waste issues.

We’re not here to promote a specific tobacco product or the consumption of tobacco items, just like we are not here to promote a specific type of pen or granola bar. Our commitment is to divert as much waste as possible from landfills and then recycle it, reducing the need to make products from virgin materials. Responsible tobacco companies like Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company are sponsoring these programs on their own accord and without their support the programs would not be possible.

TakePart: Do you feel in some way you're incubating a new litter consciousness? That by pointing out that which we waste in massive numbers, we might be able to realize the magnitude of our actions?

Zakes: We certainly strive to be a part of the spreading consciousness around waste and the global environmental issues it does and will continue to create. Through our free educational programs, we hope to instill younger generations with more environmental awareness and a growing desire to protect our planet's ecosystems. Through our work with universities and entrepreneurial incubators we hope to empower and enable the next generation of social entrepreneurs. Through our work with major manufacturers and corporations we hope to show decisionmakers and key stakeholders that CSR initiatives are possible and can even be profitable.

However, we’re just one part of a larger movement which is addressing the litter problem. Informative websites like Earth911 help consumers find local recycling options, businesses like RecycleBank and Practically Green incentivize consumers to take more responsible actions like recycling, manufacturers like Method are using “Ocean plastic” to make packaging, and nonprofits like EarthEcho and 5gyres.org are opening our eyes to the impact of litter and pollution on our most vital ecosystems—the oceans. 

Together we can overcome the growing waste issue, but surely it will take a planet to save one!

What amount of your family's garbage do you recycle: none, half, or all? Tell us in the COMMENTS below.

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