GreenSpace: Banishing the ugly butts

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 26, 2012

Tom Szaky collects the most disgusting things. Yucky yogurt containers. Sticky candy wrappers. Old flip-flops.

Now, he and his Trenton company, TerraCycle, are onto a new one: cigarette butts, the most common litter items on the planet.

(And much, much worse items, but that comes later.)

So bring 'em on. Let neither stinkiness nor sogginess nor other manner of nastiness be a barrier.

Once in hand, the company will "sanitize" and sort the butts, sending the paper and tobacco to a specialty tobacco composter.

The filters will be melted and re-formed into pellets, eventually to end up as two different but butt-worthy items - ashtrays and park benches.

For every 1,000 butts sent in by a TerraCycle member (find out more at www.terracycle.com), a dollar will go to the national anti-littering nonprofit, Keep America Beautiful.

Szaky said the new butt program "will help to promote our belief that everything can and should be recycled." It's part of his plan to "eliminate the idea of waste."

Targeting butts should be easy. They're everywhere.

A 2009 Keep America Beautiful study found that 65 percent of cigarette butts wind up as litter.

In a quarter century of beach cleanups, volunteers for the Ocean Conservancy have picked up more than 52 million butts - the most pervasive item they find.

Many beaches now limit smoking to designated areas. Campuses fed up with spending thousands of dollars picking up the things have considered bans.

Still the butts come.

They are more than unsightly. Peer-reviewed studies have detailed how metals leach from smoked cigarettes. And how chemicals in the butts are harmful to fish, which is relevant because many butts wind up in waterways.

Even when butts are picked up - or not littered to begin with - they add to the waste stream piling up in our landfills.

Keep America Beautiful has actually studied butt locales. Most (85 percent) wind up on the open ground, followed by bushes or shrubbery, then around - not in - trash receptacles. The final 15 percent get stubbed out in planters.

Most butt litterers "drop with intent." Others flick and fling.

And can you guess the spots with the highest littering rates? Hospitals and other medical sites.

This is not the first effort to curb butt-waste.

A decade ago, Chris Woolson, a Philadelphia software designer, started a website, www.litterbutt.com, through which people can report license plate numbers of automotive butt-flickers.

The site now has more than 3,700 members - a passionate group, judging by the posts - who have generated 86,700 reports.

Szaky's genius lies in getting regular people to do the collecting.

He partners with companies that want to take responsibility for the end-life of their products - in this case, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., a Reynolds American subsidiary.

They fund the shipping, processing, and a small donation to nonprofits. So school groups are a big source of items, because the donation can go back to them.

Then TerraCycle makes stuff from the items and sells it.

Given Szaky's eco-goals, some criticize his collection of non-green "waste" as validating companies that make it. He counters that his job is to collect waste, not to judge it.

Indeed, with the butt campaign, he's now partnering with two of the three "Merchant of Death" industries, although he'd rather not put it that way.

He's already recycling wine corks from the liquor industry, and the day I talked to him, he was pondering Christmas lights made from the casings of shotgun shells. He judged the result "charming."

Others pooh-pooh such radical recycling, contending that it consumes more energy than it saves.

Szaky says about 50 independent life-cycle analyses show otherwise.

TerraCycle has programs for 47 categories of products, from toothpaste tubes to energy bar wrappers, chip bags to cheese packaging, shoes to MP3 players.

As of last week, more than 32 million people had collected nearly 2.5 billion "waste units." More than $4.7 million had been returned to nonprofits.

But is there no limit? Trying to think of things just as disgusting as cigarette butts, I teasingly asked Szaky if he was considering a program for, say, chewed gum.

Egad. Turns out he is.

And it gets better. Or worse. He's in top-secret talks with companies to find uses for soiled diapers, feminine hygiene products, and condoms.

What's next? Fingernail clippings?


"GreenSpace" appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column. Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Visit her blog at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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