Recycling entrepreneur stubs out cigarette garbage

Jan 27, 2013 by Brigitte Dusseau
TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky works in his office at the company's headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey, on January 10, 2013. TerraCycle Inc., a company devoted to creating recycling systems for hard-to-recycle waste, has created an alternative to leaving cigarette butts on roadways or putting them into landfills.

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 company TerraCycle in Trenton, New Jersey, says there's no such thing as trash, even when you're 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 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.

It seems that for once smoking benefits everyone.

The , happy to get some decent publicity, pays TerraCycle.

Volunteer collectors win points per butt, which can then be redeemed as contributions to charities.

start looking cleaner. And TerraCycle, which sells recycled products to retailers like 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 the .

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

TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky works in his office at the company's headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey, January 10, 2013. Recycling entrepreneur Szaky is stubbing out the world's cigarette problem—one butt at a time.

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 non recyclable recyclable," CEO Szaky told AFP at the New Jersey headquarters. Soon they'll be doing chewing gum and dirty diapers, but Szaky said his "personal favorite" is used cigarettes.

"It's the ash, the cigarette butt, it's the packaging, everything," he said.

"After we launched it in May in Canada, it was so successful, we collected over a million cigarettes in a short period of time. We had all these great organizations collecting and the tobacco industry was so excited that they launched the program in the US, in Spain."

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's any shortage of supplies: 37 percent of the world's litter is in cigarette butts, with up to a couple trillion thrown out yearly, Szaky said.

About 35 million people across 22 countries take part in TerraCycle's collection programs, which are financed by businesses, like Old Navy clothing in the United States and Colgate, which supports the toothbrush collection.

"When we created the cigarette solution, we went to big companies and showed them plastic made from used cigarettes. They couldn't believe it and the companies got very engaged," Szaky said.

"They not only finance the program and pay for all the costs, they are out here, and are going to do very aggressive promotion."

Szaky's company began when two people had the idea of harvesting worm excrement for fertilizer. Now it employs about 100 people.

"I want to solve every kind of garbage that exists," he said. "My real goal would be that there is no such thing as garbage. Garbage doesn't exist in nature."

Explore further: Boeing and Chinese firm to turn 'gutter oil' into jet fuel

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recycling 'tiny trash' -- cigarette butts

May 12, 2010

A new study suggests expanding community recycling programs beyond newspapers, beverage containers, and other traditional trash to include an unlikely new potential treasure: Cigarette butts. Terming this tiny trash "one ...

China scientists say cigarette butts protect steel

May 14, 2010

(AP) -- Chinese scientists say they have found a way for the countless cigarette butts that are tossed every day on streets, beaches and other public places to be reused - in protecting steel pipes from rusting.

Cigarette ads have tobacco foes fuming

Aug 01, 2011

A green cigarette? New magazine ads touting cigarettes with "additive-free" organic tobacco use the term "eco-friendly," prompting anti-smoking activists to fume.

Recommended for you

Cheaper silicon means cheaper solar cells

16 hours ago

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have pioneered a new approach to manufacturing solar cells that requires less silicon and can accommodate silicon with more impurities than ...

User comments : 10

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Telekinetic
4 / 5 (8) Jan 27, 2013
Clever young man to tap into the unlimited income stream of cigarette makers to pay for the whole operation. Great PR for them- Marlboro goes green. Now he just has to recycle those plastic bags that the chemo comes in. Glaxo, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly may be interested.
Squirrel
3.8 / 5 (4) Jan 27, 2013
Telekinetic -- thanks a 100% spot on comment.
Whydening Gyre
2.8 / 5 (6) Jan 27, 2013
Telek - Ditto on what Squirrel just said.
ALL companies that produce waste and package with non-reusable materials should be invested in this.
Wonder if it's publicly traded...
Newbeak
5 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2013
I suppose the last frontier for recycling is for used Kleenex and paper towels.90% of what I throw out are these two items-most of the rest I recycle.On second thought,maybe Kleenex and paper towels could be recycled into pellets for pellet stoves.I saw a Youtube video of some guy who heats his home for nothing.He has a machine that crushes and extrudes fallen leaves into pellets for his stove.
RealScience
not rated yet Jan 27, 2013
@Newbeak - burning works - in the winter I recycle them in the wood stove. And in the summer they can be composted
53peterp
not rated yet Jan 27, 2013
What about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch plenty of plastic to work with there.
88HUX88
not rated yet Jan 28, 2013
Smoking does not benefit everyone; how is that a valid conclusion? Tyres are recycled into surfaces for children's playgrounds, so it seems that driving benefits everyone. Something is missing from the reasoning.
Newbeak
not rated yet Jan 28, 2013
@Newbeak - burning works - in the winter I recycle them in the wood stove. And in the summer they can be composted

I assume you compress them into briquettes or pellets?
RealScience
not rated yet Jan 28, 2013
@Newbeak - I generally just hand-crumple them into really tight balls for the stove. On the rare occasion when I have too many for that, I put the crumpled balls on the cement floor and jump hard on them. They get pretty compact that way, and will burn well if there is a bed of coals.
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (3) Jan 29, 2013
@Newbeak - I generally just hand-crumple them into really tight balls for the stove. On the rare occasion when I have too many for that, I put the crumpled balls on the cement floor and jump hard on them. They get pretty compact that way, and will burn well if there is a bed of coals.

I always wanted a good reason to get one of those mini steam rollers....