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Technology Could Address Problem of Cigarette Litter

Posted Aug. 05, 2013, at 2:58 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 28, 2013, at 1:50 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — While it is common knowledge that smoking can cause serious diseases along with other health problems including allergies, what’s not as commonly known is the scope and impact of cigarette litter. In May, a restaurant owner in Portland offered a nickel per cigarette butt to encourage cleanup, as smoking bans and fines for such litter haven’t had widespread impact. He shipped them to a company called TerraCycle, which runs recycling programs. While Monument Square was littered again just days after the effort, there is hope that the technology and startup industries might offer solutions with unconventional and innovative approaches.

Cigarette butts are not only a widespread form of litter, but they are difficult to break down. Electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) aren’t much better due to the cartridges used. Some analysts have predicted there are 1.7 million e-cig cartridges to be disposed of — creating a large amount of litter.

One approach to reducing cigarette litter encourages recycling through TerraCycle’s “Cigarette Waste Brigade,” where volunteers collect cigarette butts and send them to the company in a postage-paid package. The company then turns them into plastic that can be used to make new products — even chairs. The volunteer collectors are awarded points per butt to be redeemed as contributions to various charities. While it can take thousands of butts to make a small item (including ashtrays), the company says there’s no shortage, with a few trillion discarded every year. The program has brought in more than a ton of butts and related waste at various U.S. locations according to the company. The tobacco industry pays TerraCycle for the publicity, and recycled products are sold to retailers including Walmart and Whole Foods. The products are also available at the company’s online retail site.

A company from the tech startup world is taking a completely different approach by developing a smoking device that avoids many of the problems other offerings face. The Ploom Pax, an iPod-styled device offered by Vape World, doesn’t use cartridges, but rather is filled with loose-leaf tobacco in a small compartment (refillable chamber). It uses a vaporization process to heat the tobacco and convert it into a vapor. This eliminates the toxins found in cigarette smoke (since there’s no burning). Since the device is designed for long-term use, there’s minimal concern about waste, whereas e-cigs are much more disposable (and generally don’t use real tobacco).

So far, awareness of cigarette waste and its impact has risen somewhat, and efforts like those described are a step in the right direction. Of course, no single solution (of combination thereof) will take care of all litter, but each new development or offering can make a difference. You can find out more about cigarette litter here.

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