Can Cigarettes / Cigarette Butts be Composted?

Tuesday, 13 February 2018  |  HOTBIN Composting

Can Cigarettes / Cigarette Butts be Composted?

Did you know that 4.5 million cigarette butts are disposed of globally every year? It’s a huge amount of waste but can they be composted?

The question of whether cigarette butts can be composted has been debated over the last couple of decades and despite a number of scientific studies (conducted by both pro and anti-smoking parties), there still does not appear to be any single widely accepted answer.

What’s in a Cigarette Butt?

Cigarette filters, commonly known as “butts” are made from a range of materials including hemp and flax; however 95% of today’s filters are made from a synthetic material called cellulose acetate commonly used to make photographic film and frames for sunglasses. Made by combining bleached cotton or wood pulp with acetic acid (vinegar), the resulting material is then spun into hair like fibres by machines which create bundles known as the filter. Each filter amazingly can contain as  many as 12,000 fibre strands which are kept in place with a paper filter wrapper secured around the filter itself  which are then discarded once the cigarette has been smoked.

Despite being largely made from natural materials and so consequently technically biodegradable, cellulose acetate is in fact a type of plastic and as such is not readily compostable.

Previous Studies on Composting Cigarette Butts

One study by Bonanomi et al (2015) found that the paper based filter wrappers broke down relatively quickly from around the cigarette butt as a result of microbial decay. Following the initial early decay of the wrapper paper, two years later, the filters themselves had only sustained minimal signs of decomposition and microbial attack. Puls et al (2010) suggested that the decomposition of discarded cigarette butts was being delayed by the tightly woven fibres within the filter and the plasticisers which are used to fuse the fibres together. The combination of these two factors prohibits the composting bacteria from accessing the filter fibres easily and as such, significantly decelerates their rate of decomposition.

A further point and maybe a more pressing concern that Bonanomi et al’s (2015) study highlighted was the discovery of nicotine residue in the partially decomposed cigarette butts. If after two years cigarette butts were still holding traces of nicotine, the potential for these residual materials to seep into the surrounding decomposing waste and cause contamination is very high.

So Can Cigarettes / Cigarette Butts Be Composted Domestically?

Considering the challenges and cause for concern regarding residual trace elements during the  decomposition of used cigarette butts, unfortunately we wouldn’t  recommend home gardeners compost these even in an accelerated hot composting system like the HOTBIN.

How Best to Dispose of Cigarette Butts?

So if composting cigarettes and cigarette butts is out of the question, what is the most effective method of disposing of these cigarette butts without throwing them in the bin?

How about recycling? There are a growing number of companies worldwide who offer recycling services for cigarette butts. Users can collect and bag up cigarette butts before booking a free collection (with freepost label) with these companies online and send the courier in to collect from your home or office. The used butts are then taken to the company recycling facilities where they are processed. It’s an intensive process which begins with the removal and composting of any residual tobacco leaf  before the filter is sterilised at high temperatures and shredded. The shredded material is then combined with other recycled materials and turned into new plastic items such as a shipping pallet or park bench.

Alternatively, there are companies making biodegradable cigarette filters. These cigarette butts have grass or flower seeds embedded within the filter paper so that when the butt is placed under a thin layer of soil such as in a flower pot, flowers sprout. It is regretful however that the risk of residual nicotine traces would still exist.

What is The Future for Cigarette Butts?

It’s estimated that cigarette butts can take up to 15 years to breakdown so it will be very interesting to see what progress is made in this field going forward as there is still no one targeted approach as to how best to tackle this issue.