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Campaign aims to turn cigarette butts into benches

Recycling partnership to last ‘indefinitely’

Photo by Kim Gilliland

A receptacle for storing used cigarettes is seen on a sidewalk in Downtown Whitewater. Several storage cannisters were shipped from a recycling organization in New Jersey, where used cigarette butts can be sent to be reused to create plastic park benches.

Brad Allen, Biz & Tech Editor

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Benches are a place to rest your butt. But what about a bench made out of butts?
Cigarette butts, that is.
Downtown Whitewater, Inc. has partnered with Terracycle, a non-profit organization based in New Jersey, to conduct an ongoing project in which cigarette butts are recycled into fiberglass and plastic materials to be reused for various projects, including creating park benches, recycling containers and playground equipment.
“The city’s been wanting to do something for a while that would really encourage people to use a uniform receptacle downtown to prevent cigarette butts from ending up on the ground,” Director of Downtown Whitewater, Inc. Courtney Nelson said.
Terracycle shipped several receptacles to Downtown Whitewater, Inc., which will be used to collect cigarette butts. When the holders become full, they will be shipped to the Terracycle facility, where the company will break down the cigarette filters and form them into fiberglass.

The process of recycling the cigarette butts in various products is completed in three steps:

Sterilization under special circumstances: In cases where cigarette waste is collected from a location with a high risk of contamination; the cigarette waste is sterilized using gamma radiation and tested for bacteria in the waste.

Shredding and separation: In which cigarette waste is shredded and separated into organic and non-organic waste components. The organic waste is the tobacco, paper and ash, and the non-organic waste is the cigarette filter and packaging.

Solution: Organic waste is sent to tobacco composting facilities. The non-organic waste is blended with other recycled material and pelletized to be used to create various recycled plastic products.

Reducing landfill waste
Volunteers and members of Downtown Whitewater, Inc. collected more than 18 pounds of cigarette butts off the ground around  city of Whitewater between April and November, Nelson said.
Terracycle pays $1 to its partners for every full container of cigarette butts. Nelson said all funds gained through this project will be used to fund other green energy projects in the Whitewater community.

For anybody who wants to try to keep waste out of a landfill, we want to be there to help with that process.”

— Lauren Taylor, Terracycle public affairs specialist


“It’s not a lot of money, but we’re getting funds from something that would otherwise go into a landfill,” Nelson said. “So it seems like a win-win for everybody.”
Terracycle public affairs specialist Lauren Taylor said the organization was originally founded in 2001 as fertilizing company to reuse farm waste.
Terracycle is partnered with 25 cities in the U.S., including Baltimore, Maryland, New Orleans, Louisiana, St. Louis, Missoui and Portland, Oregon.
“For anybody who wants to try to keep waste out of a landfill, we want to be there to help with that process,” Taylor said. “We’d like to continue to grow to keep the value of resources to be reused, and we want to keep waste out of the environment.”

A long-term partnership
On how long the “The Butts to Benches” campaign will last, “the answer is indefinitely, Nelson said.
The receptacles downtown are here to stay.
“The canisters are permanent,” Nelson said. “We’ll keep sending cigarette butts for as long as Terracycle will accept them. We’re looking at this as a long-term partnership.”
Downtown Whitewater, Inc. is looking to expand its partnership with Terracycle to include other zero-waste projects.
Downtown Whitewater, Inc. also works with John’s Disposal Service, a recycling company that serves a multitude of cities in southern Wisconsin, to reduce the amount of waste in the community.
Nelson said the number one thing people can do to help is to use the receptacles.
“All the effort that went into getting the receptacles out here only pays off if people use them,” Nelson said. “We’ve placed them in locations where we had seen cigarette butts collecting on the ground.”

We hope to see those who smoke disposing of garbage in a productive way. Walking the extra half block does really help in furthering green initiatives around the country.”

— Courtney Nelson, Director of Downtown Whitewater, Inc.


Nelson said she hopes the receptacles are located in convenient places.
“We ask that people scope out where they are and use them,” Nelson said. “We hope to see those who smoke disposing of garbage in a productive way. Walking the extra half block does really help in furthering green initiatives around the country.”

Increasing Awareness
Students Allied for a Green Earth (SAGE) Co-President Lorenzo Backhaus said the campaign will most likely have a positive effect on the Whitewater community and UW-Whitewater.
“Eliminating waste and reducing pollution and reusing it is the answer to a lot of environmental issues,” Backhaus said. “Taking these cigarette butts that people have thrown on the ground and reusing them towards multiple peoples’ benefit is a great idea.”

Eliminating waste and reducing pollution and reusing it is the answer to a lot of environmental issues. Taking these cigarette butts that people have thrown on the ground and reusing them towards multiple peoples’ benefit is a great idea.”

— Lorenzo Backhaus, Co-President of S.A.G.E.


Backhaus said it would be even better to also conduct similar projects to reduce and reuse plastic waste to benefit many people.
“This campus tries to recycle, but our labels on our garbage cans aren’t the best,” Backhaus said. “If we could just identify campus plastics and put more labels on our recycling and garbage cans, then we could show that we can send it somewhere to benefit people, and not just throw it in a landfill.”
Approximately 3.5 trillion cigarette filters are littered globally, filled with toxic chemicals from tobacco smoke, make their way into our environment as discarded waste yearly, according to a Terracycle press release.
In 2009, a Keep America Beautiful study found that cigarette waste accounted for 38 percent of all U.S. roadway litter, according to a Terracycle press release.
“I don’t want to assume that all people don’t use [their cigarettes] all the way to the bottom,” Backhaus said. “But all these chemicals sitting on the ground definitely isn’t good for plants or animals. Birds will come up and try to eat it. Animals might mistake it for insects. To eliminate waste and reuse it for something is definitely a plus.”
Backhaus said plastic can take up to one thousand years to biodegrade when it’s sitting in a landfill or floating in the ocean.
“We’re a student org that’s fighting to make sure that [UW-Whitewater] is as sustainable and as green as possible,” Backhaus said.
SAGE holds biweekly campus cleanups every other Sunday at 1 p.m. The location designated for volunteer cleaning varies per outing. Green vests, garbage bags and work gloves are provided to volunteers.
Backhaus said the organization picks up two garbage bags worth of waste each time.
Cigarette waste can be detrimental to the environment, Backhaus said. He hopes the message will be spread to many people to create more awareness on the program.
Backhaus said offering this alternative method for disposing of cigarette butts will provide an incentive to put waste in a place where it will help improve the environment.
“If people are educated and aware, they will be more entitled to participate,” Backhaus said. “Now that I’m aware of it, on our campus cleanups for SAGE, we’ll bring an extra bag and focus on picking up cigarette butts to throw them in the containers.”

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The student news site of the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater
Campaign aims to turn cigarette butts into benches