Cigarette butts – from waste to asphalt mixture

Photo-illustration: Freepik (nensuria)

The health hazard that cigarette consumption causes for both active and passive smokers is a problem that most people are familiar with. In the EU countries, cigarette packets feature disturbing photos and inscriptions of diseases that can develop from smoking. However, this problem affects not only people but also nature, something that is not talked about enough. Relevant data show that more than 15 billion cigarettes are smoked globally per day. The problem becomes even bigger when we take into account the results of a survey that showed that over 70 percent of smokers throw cigarette butts into nature.

The negative impact that this waste has is not only evident at the place where the cigarette butt is discarded. When it rains, the rainwater that soaks cigarettes causes the release of more than 6,000 toxic and carcinogenic substances into the ground which then travel deeper into the soil and groundwater. Moreover, just one cigarette can contaminate up to five litres of water. As everything in nature is connected by a continuous cycle, these very harmful substances that end up in the soil also reach the plants that take nutrients from such polluted soil. If someone does not care about nature, but about the health of the people, this is a good explanation of how everything returns to humanity like a boomerang. If we eat food produced from these polluted plants, we are re-engesting harmful substances into our bodies again.

Other research highlights another problem when it comes to plants, which is that cigarette butts affect their growth. The following experiment was conducted – plant seeds were planted in two pots and a cigarette was placed in one of them. The result showed that 30 percent fewer plants (quantity) grew in the pot with the cigarette butt and that those plants that managed to grow were also 30 percent smaller (in size) compared to those that grew in the healthy pot.

In order to solve the pollution that cigarette butts cause, the EcoButt Company from Slovakia devised a way to recycle cigarette butts. The end result is a top-quality product which is used in the production of asphalt mixtures. Everything starts with good infrastructure, that is, special ashtrays that are placed in public places where smokers often smoke. The second step is the collection itself, which, given that cigarette butts are not considered municipal waste, requires a special organization. This kind of collection is done once or twice a month.

How to turn cigarette butts into asphalt?

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Juan Cardenas)

The company published an interesting piece of information on its official website – out of 500 people, a third thought that the cigarette filter was made of paper, while another third said that it was made of cotton. However, what is actually hidden inside a cigarette is plastic, i.e. the so-called acetyl cellulose, which takes about 15 years to decompose. It is this property that is used in the production of asphalt. Acetyl cellulose granulate is produced by the processing of cigarette butts, which replaces the usual cellulose granulate needed in the process of creating an asphalt mixture.

Using this kind of recycling not only reduces cigarette waste but also saves trees. Namely, cellulose is a natural polymer that is found in plants and by its modification, the aforementioned material is obtained.

How does Serbia treat this kind of waste?

The streets in cities throughout our country are full of cigarette butts. Moreover, Serbia occupies one of the highest positions globally when it comes to the number of smokers. That is why we should fully support such solutions.

However, our country does have ideas on how to reduce cigarette waste. A few years ago, the students of the Dušan Trivunac Dragoš High School in Svrljica invented a biodegradable cigarette filter, which is made of unbleached cellulose and contains plant seeds. Also, the Naša Kuća Parent Association produces recycled paper from cigarette packs. Environmentally conscious smokers can take their cigarette packs to this association for recycling.

Katarina Vuinac