Cigarette butts recycling

Written by
Dr Ayub Macharia

How many times have you spotted cigarette butts while walking around or when relaxing in a public area? You agree, more often than not. Did you know that in 2015, over 1.1 billion people smoked tobacco of which more males contributed to this figure than females? According to the World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, although the consumption rate is declining worldwide, the prevalence of tobacco smoking appears to be increasing in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and the African Regions.
In Kenya, the prevailing number of male smokers dominates over the females. According to WHO, over 8 billion sticks of cigarettes are smoked in Kenya. This contributes to the alarming number of cigarette butts often seen discarded all over and dotting the sidewalks we use. In this regard, cigarette butts could be regarded as a key type of solid waste littering our environment.
If you analyze a cigarette keenly, you will realize that it is made up of several components. For instance there is the outer thin paper, which holds a filter (for some cigarettes) and the tobacco that is the key consumable. Cigarettes are made from partly leaf tobacco as the raw material, which is consumed through smoking. Towards the end of the stick, a cigarette filter is placed to enhance consumption.
These filters are non consumable hence are discarded as the cigarette butts. They contain cellulose acetate, which is a high grade plastic. Due to this ‘plastic’ nature of the filters they are less flammable and cannot be burnt along while smoking, hence the smokers dispose them.
With the advancement in new technology development globally, it has been discovered that cigarette butts can be recycled. The cellulose acetate making the cigarette filter is used in making of some plastic products like sunglasses, magnetic tapes and clothes. Hence cigarette butts provide an income generating opportunity whereby if the butts are collected, they could be sold to recyclers. This will help curb the waste increase menace that makes our environment an eyesore especially in developing countries bearing in mind that we are the huge consumers of cigarettes.
The smokers have a challenge of considering the cigarette butts as tiny items and easily throw them away not knowing that this is done by many people leading to littering. Their small size makes collection of the cigarette butts difficult and dirty through comingling with other waste and dust. To enable recycling of cigarette butts, waste bins should be placed at strategic and ‘hotspot’ areas to ease the collection of these filters for industries that may be interested with the butts as their raw materials.
The South Africa’s plastic pipe industry uses the cigarette butts as recycled raw material and hence is at the forefront in trying to find a solution to the rising problem of discarded cigarette butts along their beaches. Kenya also has plastic industries, which are willing to buy the cigarette butts for recycling. Hence these industries could play a pivotal role in taking up this challenge to help the country through recycling of these filters, which can be raw materials for their product manufacturing.
We all know that cigarettes are one of the highly taxed items in Kenya. Taxation on the tobacco products aims at discouraging use of cigarettes to prevent health related ailments such as respiratory diseases and cancer. But it’s also important that we consider disposal of cigarette butts, which makes the environment dirty. Hence, it’s a high time that the government invests some of the money collected through taxation into activities that aid in collecting the cigarette butts to ensure that they do not pollute our environment.
In the absence of government funding of recycling of the cigarette butts, the members of the public should invest in initiatives that can help in collection of the waste and recycling the same. For instance, we need the smokers to ensure that they only dump the cigarette butts in the right bins to help in easier collection for recycling. We should not throw butts anywhere else. Lets also support any community or youth led initiatives to collect the butts and selling them to recyclers.
For those who do not know where to sell your cigarette butts, please consult the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA-Kenya) for further guidance on recyclers who could receive the butts.
WHO global report on trends in tobacco smoking 2000- 2025
Written collaboratively with Diana

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