A second life for cigarette butts?

Current situation

By now, it’s no secret that plastic waste suffocates our planet. Little is known and discussed, though, about the plastic-filtered cigarette butts. Almost 99% of all smokers worldwide smoke filtered cigarettes, and 76%–84% of them litter their cigarettes. A lot is being done worldwide to encourage people to stop smoking or to avoid smoking inside buildings, for health reasons. In the Netherlands, smoking is becoming less and less popular. During the last decade, the share of people smoking decreased from nearly 28% to just under 22%. The share of heavy smokers even halved in this period. Policies that ban smoking, however, lead to increased numbers of cigarette butts, and, consequently, to greater environmental risks and clean-up costs. So, what lies ahead? Where do all these flickered cigarettes go? Can they be recycled?


 Scientific Alternatives

A series of solutions have already been proposed by scientists. The first one is the incorporation of cigarette butts – less than 5% content – into construction bricks. Bricks with cigarette butt content higher than 5% are also acceptable, but for other purposes, such as facades and internal walls. A brick with 1% content contains about 32 g of cigarette butts. 1500 billion bricks are produced worldwide per year. So, after brief calculations, an estimated 48 million tons of cigarette butts could be recycled each year. Furthermore, if 2.5% of the global brick production contained bricks with 1% butts, all cigarette butts produced worldwide could theoretically be recycled.

The second solution involves biodegradable filters as an alternative to the planet-polluting acetate filter. Greenbutts is a company that has developed and patented technology that provides such an alternative. Their filter can only biodegrade in 3 days in compost. Another solution that already exists is a method, with which cellulose is extracted from the filter, and then paper is recycled. Finally, Terracycle, a New Jersey-based firm, has partnered with businesses, cities, and consumers around the world to collect used filters so they can be ‘upcycled’ into something useful, like park benches and shipping pallets.


What’s next?

Are these alternatives going to yield results? Is it indeed useful to recycle and upcycle the cigarette butts? So many unanswered questions.

“The cigarette filter is a marketing tool, not a health device,” Novotny says. “There really is no health benefit from filters at all.”

And that is the ugly truth! A separate collection of cigarette butts, for recycling and upcycling, is indeed one of the first steps towards a cleaner planet. Raising awareness through public education could also help. In more practical solutions at a societal level, distribution of individual metal portable ashtrays by the municipalities and the companies is a measure suggested by CITIES Foundation. Governments could raise cigarette tax further. Last but not least, development of NGOs that aim to combat cigarette butt pollution specifically seems rather important. Can you also think of other possibilities? Then, you are more than welcome to contact us at info@citiesfoundation.org. As we have already said, the health of our planet is equally important to our health!



  1. Rebischung, F., Chabot, L., Biaudet, H., & Pandard, P. (2018). Cigarette butts: A small but hazardous waste, according to European regulation. Waste management, 82, 9-14.
  2. Greenbutts (March, 2020). Dedicated to solving the global problem of cigarette butt pollution. Retrieved from: https://www.green-butts.com/.
  3. The Revelator (2019, June 24). Cigarette Waste: New Solutions for the World’s Most-littered Trash. Retrieved from: https://therevelator.org/cigarette-butt-litter-solutions/.
  4. Good News Network (2018, March 18). Company Recycles Cigarette Butts and Turns Them into Useful Things Instead. Retrieved from: https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/terracycle-cigarette-butt-program/.
  5. Pacific Standard (2017, June 14). Can Cigarette butts be recycled?. Retrieved from: https://psmag.com/environment/can-cigarette-butts-be-recycled-32091.
  6. Araújo, M. C. B., & Costa, M. F. (2019). A critical review of the issue of cigarette butt pollution in coastal environments. Environmental research.
  7. Torkashvand, J., Sobhi, H. R., & Esrafili, A. (2019). Littered cigarette butt as a well-known hazardous waste: A comprehensive systematic review. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 121242.
  8. Mohajerani, A., Kadir, A. A., & Larobina, L. (2016). A practical proposal for solving the world’s cigarette butt problem: Recycling in fired clay bricks. Waste management, 52, 228-244.
Created on 16 March 2020

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