By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY
Recycling has moved far beyond paper and plastic to tackle the nation's top litter problem: cigarette butts.
Private companies are launching programs that not only encourage people to pick up the butts but also recycle them. Contrary to what many smokers may think, cigarette filters are not biodegradable: They are made with a plastic that can leach their toxic chemicals into the environment.
In July, TerraCycle will begin providing free UPS shipping labels - paid for by an unnamed American tobacco company - so people can mail in butts they've collected. TerraCycle will turn the butts into plastic pallets for industrial use.
Today, Eco-Tech Displays is starting a company, Cigarette Butt Litter Dream Recycling, to transform butts into products such as jewelry, vases and guitar picks. It collects the butts from hundreds of ashtrays that it has placed outside bars and restaurants in New York City, New Jersey and Chicago.
There are public efforts, too. New York Assemblyman Michael DenDekker reintroduced a bill this year to give collectors a penny per butt, paid for by a penny deposit per cigarette. Portland, Maine, instituted a $100 fine for butt littering in March. San Francisco began collecting a penny per smoke in 2009 - a "litter abatement fee" - to pay for cigarette cleanup costs.
"We're a long way from yogurt cups," says TerraCycle's Albe Zakes, noting advances in recycling. As long as an affordable way is found to collect and ship waste, he says: "Everything's recyclable."
When it comes to cigarettes butts, Zakes says, the paper and leftover tobacco are manually removed and composted. The rest is shredded, put into a machine that removes toxic chemicals, melted and remade as industrial pallets.
Blake Burich, a Columbus, Ohio, resident who has patented a recycling method and is partnering with companies to start facilities nationwide, says some people eagerly collect butts. He recalls a woman he arranged to meet in a shopping mall.
"She popped her trunk and had a garbage bag full. It must have been 50 pounds," he says.
Curtis Baffico, a San Diego surfer so outraged by butts on the beach that he started a collection effort, says it's a "very dirty, stinky job." Volunteers use compostable gloves or tweezers.
"It's not like picking up bottles. You almost have to use your fingers," he says, adding it's "backbreaking."
He says no amount of collecting and recycling, however, will solve the problem. In its most recent litter survey, the Keep America Beautiful found cigarettes were the single largest item littered on roadways, accounting for 38% of the total. Its main message: Don't litter.