No ifs, ands or butts about it - Ypsilanti wants you to recycle your cigarette filters

When a staff member approached Christopher Jacobs about recycling cigarette butts, he thought it was a dig at him. After all, the executive director of Ypsilanti’s Downtown Development Authority counts himself among the few that still partake.

Instead, the supposed tongue-in-cheek comment was actually a recommendation that Jacobs thought fit the city’s progressive culture rather well.

“We brought it before the board in August, reached out to businesses - almost all of the bars and restaurants said they struggle with cleaning up butts in front of their stores,” Jacobs said. “People seemed to be excited, so we said ‘let’s pilot the program’.”

That program involves placing 12 recycling containers intended for cigarette butts at highly trafficked areas around the city. The simple gesture is good optics for the city, but it also represents a burgeoning trend among cities to engage best practices for business and environment.

“I think we may be one of the first communities,” he said. “I don’t see it in many of the other communities. To divert that material from landfills and to produce something good from a bad habit - we really didn’t need to talk about it much (at city council). Everyone said ‘wow, that’s a great idea. It’s really cheap. It’s low-hanging fruit’.”

As governments enact more restrictions on single-use plastics, environmentalists have turned their heads toward cigarette butts. The orange piece of paper and plastic might be minuscule, but the numbers behind them certainly aren’t. 

The Cigarette Butt Pollution Project reports that every year, 376 billion cigarettes are consumed in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, that number climbs into the trillions. Now imagine 65 percent of those cigarette butts getting tossed on streets, in rivers and every other crack of pavement they it can fit in. 

More than just an eyesore, those butts don’t biodegrade. They’re made of a polymer. As the waste has spread, the cigarette butt has been dubbed the “The most littered item in the world.” And with that acknowledgement comes a surging campaign to recycle the waste.

“I love our mission, it’s the whole mission-driven eliminate-the-idea-of-waste goal,” said Lisa Pellegrino, the strategic partnerships manager and consumer engagement with TerraCycle. “It’s an anti-littering message that focuses on the toxic nature of waste.”

TerraCyle isn't one of the new kids on the recycling block - but it's message of eliminating “the idea of waste,” rather than just the waste itself may be. The symbolic charge they hope generates material progress comes through in their cigarette butt campaign.

They are focusing on the positive reinforcement of recycling cigarette butts, rather than using negative messages meant to shame smokers who discard their waste.

Pellegrino said they have seen a reduction of nine to 12 percent of litter in the vicinity of their recycling containers. From there, the butts are processed or ‘pelletized’ and refit for other plastic products like ashtrays and shipping pallets. For Detroit and Grand Rapids, two Michigan cities that have used TerraCycle’s services, they have collected 60,750 and 1,219,728 butts respectively. 

But, officials remain skeptical to their effectiveness.

“It all depends on whether people use them,” Jacobs said. “With conventional cigarette butt disposals, not everyone snuffs out their butts and puts them in there. Some communities might be skeptical. But with stories like these, TerraCycle might bring on a few more communities.”