Recycling entrepreneur Tom Szaky is stubbing out the world’s cigarette problem — one butt at a time.
The 30-year-old, who dropped out of Princeton University to start his innovative company, TerraCycle, in Trenton, New Jersey, says there is no such thing as trash, even when you are talking about the contents of ashtrays.
In a program started in Canada in May last year and now running from the US to Spain, TerraCycle collects cigarette butts from volunteers and turns them into plastic, which can be used for anything, even ashtrays.
The discarded cigarettes are first broken up, with the paper and remaining tobacco composted. Then the filter, made of a plastic called cellulose acetate, is melted down and turned into an ingredient for making a wide range of industrial plastic products, such as pallets — the trays used to ship heavy goods.
The tobacco industry, happy to get some decent publicity, pays TerraCycle to do the recycling.
Volunteer collectors win points per butt, which can be redeemed as contributions to charities.
Sidewalks start looking cleaner and TerraCycle, which sells recycled products to retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods, gets more business.
TerraCycle has a similarly creative view on all manner of other refuse that has tended to be bracketed as impossible to recycle and is instead sent to the landfill.
Juice sachets, plastic bottles, pens, coffee capsules, candy wrappers, toothbrushes and computer keyboards are all grist for TerraCycle’s mill.
Some items go to classic recycling, meaning they are used as material for a wholly new product.
Others are upcycled, which means the shape of the piece of garbage is retained and incorporated into a new product. For example, candy wrappers — complete with their logos — are used to bind books, or joined together to make backpacks.
“The purpose of TerraCycle is to make things that are non recyclable recyclable,” chief executive officer Szaky said at the company’s New Jersey headquarters.
Soon, they will be doing chewing gum and dirty diapers, but Szaky said his “personal favorite” is used cigarettes.
“It’s the ash, the cigarette butt, it’s the packaging, everything,” he said. “After we launched it in May in Canada, it was so successful we collected over a million cigarettes in a short period of time. We had all these great organizations collecting and the tobacco industry was so excited that they launched the program in the US, in Spain.”
Expect to see the project spread across Europe and possibly Mexico in the next four months, Szaky said.
It takes between 1,000 and 2,000 butts to make a plastic ashtray, and more than 200,000 to make a garden chair. Not that there is any shortage of supplies: 37 percent of the world’s litter is in cigarette butts, with up to a couple trillion butts thrown out each year, Szaky said.
About 35 million people across 22 countries take part in TerraCycle’s programs, which are financed by businesses like Old Navy clothing in the US.
“When we created the cigarette solution, we went to big companies and showed them plastic made from used cigarettes. They couldn’t believe it and the companies got very engaged,” Szaky said. “They not only finance the program and pay for all the costs, they are out here and are going to do very aggressive promotion.”
Szaky’s company began when two people had the idea of harvesting worm excrement for fertilizer. Now it employs about 100 people.
“I want to solve every kind of garbage that exists,” he said. “My real goal would be that there is no such thing as garbage. Garbage doesn’t exist in nature.”