Collect cigarette butts, and you could be rewarded with a bit of cash while cleaning up the environment. TerraCycle, a global company with its Canadian headquarters in Toronto, accepts used cigarettes by mail for recycling and gives the sender money based on the weight of the waste.
TerraCycle recycles and upcycles typically non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle items, such as cookie and cracker packaging, beauty product containers and more. Last May, the company launched its Cigarette Waste Brigade program.
“Knowing it’s one of the most littered items across the nation, Tom [Szaky, the company’s founder] had a vision to pick up the waste and make sure it doesn’t end up in the landfill,” says Nina Purewal, general manager of TerraCycle Canada.
The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, a national program that the Vancouver Aquarium started in 1994, says cigarette butts are the number one littered item on shorelines across Canada. Last year, 416 955 cigarettes and cigarette filters were cleaned up from 3 102 kilometres of shoreline.
To participate in the Cigarette Waste Brigade, people 19 years of age or older can register for an account on the TerraCycle website, where they can download prepaid UPS shipping labels free of charge. TerraCycle asks participants to put the cigarette waste in a plastic bag before packaging it in a box for next-day pickup by UPS.
TerraCycle rewards participants with $1 for every pound of cigarettes, which is about 1 300 butts, according to Purewal.
Every part of the cigarette butt is accepted, but not the cardboard packaging.
“If it goes into your blue bin, don’t send it to us, because that you can already recycle,” says Purewal.
Most cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic polymer. Through the recycling process, the filters, along with the outer plastic and inner foil packaging, are turned into plastic pellets. These pellets are then made into industrial products, such as plastic pallets and plastic railway ties. The tobacco is used for composting, and the ashes are turned into fertilizer. The rolling paper is pulped to make new paper.
To remove toxic elements, Purewal says the cigarette waste goes through gamma radiation before anything else is done. “It’s 100 per cent safe . . . there are absolutely no toxins in what we use post-gamma radiation,” says Purewal.
Despite this guarantee of safety, TerraCycle only produces industrial products from the waste.
“We decided to stick to industrial products just for safety . . . nothing that would come into contact with food or things that come into contact with children,” Purewal explains.
Heather Ranson, associate director of UVic’s Gustavson School of Business’s Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation, says, “You can do it for a school or a cancer society, so the money ends up going to your favourite charity if you don’t want it going to you. Beyond recycling, this is offering a good social way to give back to society.”
TerraCycle is able to make money by selling recycled parts to companies that want recycled material in their manufacturing process. They also partner with Canada’s largest cigarette manufacturer, which covers the costs of shipping the cigarette butts and processing the waste. Purewal says the manufacturer prefers to remain a silent partner at this time.
“From a business perspective, [the program] will have an impact,” says Ranson. “[TerraCycle] is finding ways to make money recycling. This is taking the burden away from the taxpayer.
“Instead of the government saying, ‘You have to pay to recycle this but we’ll pick it up,’ this way, [TerraCycle] figured out a way to make money, pay people and create jobs.”
From an environmental perspective, this program may not be a priority for Victoria, as cigarette litter isn’t as much of a problem as in other cities in Canada. According to Health Canada, B.C. has the lowest smoking rates in Canada.
For UVic, waste reduction co-ordinator Christina Waddle says the amount of cigarette waste generated on campus is minimal. “There are other areas where recycling needs to be increased that are a higher priority,” she says.