TerraCycle Inc.: Cigarette Butt Recycling

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, with nearly 1 trillion pounds of cigarette waste flooding the globe annually, leaching toxins into the groundwater, lakes and oceans. TerraCycle’s mandate is to recycle the “non-recyclable” and outsmart waste — Tom and his team knew that in order to truly live up to this, they would have to tackle the dirtiest and most taboo waste stream: Smokers’ butts.

The objectives of the project were:

– Find a way to easily collect and aggregate cigarette butts from across Canada (and ultimately every country where TerraCycle operates, 21 in total);

– Create a procedure to recycle the material, guaranteeing the finished product meets government health and safety standards;

– Secure partnerships with key stakeholders in order to ensure the entire program can operate smoothly and be free to participants.

The resulting program, called the Cigarette Waste Brigade, is free to all Canadians. Furthermore, it can be used as a fundraising tool, so there are two tangible rewards to participating: Toxic waste is prevented from entering our natural environment and money is raised for charities, schools and non-profits in the process.

The cigarette waste is collected and processed as follows:

– Anyone 19 years of age or older can join the Cigarette Waste Brigade online

– Once the participant has collected at least 3 pounds of cigarette waste (including used plastic filters, foil, plastic packaging, etc.), he/she places this waste into a plastic bag, then into a cardboard box before returning to TerraCycle’s website to download a prepaid shipping label. After printing this out and affixing it to the box, it just takes a quick phone call to UPS to arrange a free next-day pickup.

– Once the shipment arrives at TerraCycle’s warehouse in Ajax, Ont., it’s scanned and weighed; the appropriate number of TerraCycle points are added to the sender’s account, along with other pertinent information.

– The cigarette waste is baled and stored at the warehouse until a high enough volume has been reached; at this point it’s transferred to the processor.

– The waste is recycled by shredding the filters (which are made of cellulose acetate), blending them with other recyclable plastics and pelletizing them for use in injection moulding — the application currently being prioritized is hard plastic shipping pallets. Any residual tobacco waste goes to non-food composting systems.


Pelletized Cigarette Waste
Pelletized Cigarette Waste


By the end of 2015, nearly 50 million butts will have been collected through this program, and we will have raised nearly $30,000 for charity. Cigarette waste recycling programs have now been rolled out in nine other countries around the world, using TerraCycle Canada’s model.

It only takes one cigarette butt to contaminate 30 litres of water, but the good news is that, thanks to our Cigarette Waste Brigade, Canadians have prevented over 1 billion litres of water from being contaminated — and this is just the beginning.