The Eco-Friendly Approach to Cancer Sticks: Cigarette Recycling Comes to the U.K.

The Cigarette Waste Brigade wants to turn discarded butts into plastic.

(Photo: Flickr)

Sep 30, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

With smoking increasingly banned in workplaces, bars, restaurants—and even inside tobacco companies themselves—in the developed world, it’s not too unusual to see people standing outside puffing on cancer sticks. But when they’re finished getting their nicotine fix, what do they do with the cigarettes? The Cigarette Waste Brigade hopes people will recycle them instead of flicking them onto the sidewalk.

The cleverly named antilitter effort, the brainchild of TerraCycle, a Trenton, New Jersey–based recycling company, spread across the pond to the United Kingdom on Monday. TerraCycle teams up with tobacco companies around the world on its efforts—cigarette manufacturers want you to smoke but at least be eco-friendly about it, apparently. Over the past three years, TerraCycle has partnered with cities such as New Orleans and Seattle, but the latest initiative is its first significant foray into the U.K.

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Instead of dumping their ashtrays into a garbage bin, U.K. residents who join the brigade can put their ash, butts, and cigarette packaging into a resealable plastic bag or trash bag. Using free mailing labels downloadable from the TerraCycle website, they can ship up to 44 pounds of cigarette waste at a time to the company’s headquarters. TerraCycle recycles the material into various plastic products, which it sells for industrial use.

Not trashing the contents of an ashtray on your coffee table at home can help keep butts out of landfills, but the Cigarette Waste Brigade seems particularly focused on eateries and businesses—places that can install a dedicated collection bin for smoking-related refuse.

“Pubs, bars, restaurants, shopping centres, train stations, airports and even local councils are exactly the sort of places that should be encouraged to sign up and recycle the cigarette waste that is being generated on their premises,” TerraCycle’s CEO and founder, Tom Szaky, said in a statement. TerraCycle also has a poster that businesses can put up to inform people about the need to recycle cigarette butts.


The need for education about cigarette waste is certainly there. Although many cities fine people who throw cigarettes on the ground, it doesn’t seem to be stopping them. London residents can incur fines ranging from about $121 to $3,790, but 6 million cigarette butts are still tossed on the ground in the British capital annually.

Indeed, cigarette butts and other tobacco product waste have become the most common form of trash collected on city streets and beaches around the globe. The refuse that isn’t picked up by volunteers or sanitation workers goes where all the rest of the garbage we chuck on the ground ends up: in a landfill or down a storm drain and out into the ocean. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 4.5 trillion of the 6 trillion cigarettes smoked every year—about 1.6 billion pounds of cigarette butts—end up in the environment.

How successful the U.K. campaign will be remains to be seen, but in the United States, 7,023 collection bins have collected more than 37 million butts, according to TerraCycle.