Cigarette butts are the most littered item on Planet Earth, as an astonishing 4.5 trillion every year get ground out and tossed aside. Imagine finding a way to make lots of money from them. Well, one man has and is now a multi-millionaire. He is Tom Szaky and his start-up TerraCycle takes cigarette butts and, by recycling, spins them into gold.
Not only are cigarette stubs highly toxic but they take approximately 1000 years before they biodegrade. They might be ugly and unpleasant, but thanks to Szaky’s team of in-house scientists, they can be collected and converted and earn the company revenue of $22 million a year, and climbing. They are typical of the sort of waste stream products previously thought non-recyclable that TerraCycle take on in their recycling revolution. Capri Sun drinks pouches and candy wrappings are some other examples.
Szaky, an eco-enterpreneur, wanted to find a method to “outsmart waste” and defeat the idea that some things are non-recyclable. While still a 19-year-old student at Princeton University, he started up his social enterprise recycling business which now has bases in 26 countries, with the latest addition being Australia. Although Australia has strict policies on plain packaging and has seen a big drop is numbers of smokers, they still get through 24 billion cigarettes a year there. Szaky is hoping it will become another great market for him. Moving on, the next country in his sights is Japan, where he plans to open in April.
TerraCycle works on a collection model, diverting waste away from the usual destination of the landfill. Participants in the collection scheme get rewarded with payments to schools and charities. In the US Szaky has paid out $8.8 million this way. Globally, there are 60 million people taking part in these collections, known as “brigades.” It’s especially appealing to all those who have doubts and worries about standard recycling, and whether or not or those cans and packets they so carefully rinse and separate ever do actually get recycled at all, or still end up in landfills. Then there is the problem that many municipal agencies will not take many non-recyclable items anyway. This is where TerraCycle is very different. They believe that zero waste is achievable.
To get involved, the consumer just has to sign up to a local brigade. The designated waste items are accumulated and when ready to send in, a shipping voucher is downloaded. It goes off the center and gets checked, and then points are allocated. These are then redeemed by the collection point as charitable gifts or paid out at $0.01 per TerraCycle point to a school or organization of the consumer’s choice.
Cigarette stubs are “upcycled” as Szaky prefers to call it, with the organic components, the ash, tobacco and paper turned to compost. The filter parts and the cellophane wrapping get converted into a mouldable plastic. Each country he works with has slightly different criteria for collectible items, but he also takes in waste like toothpaste brushes and tubes, juice boxes, Nespresso coffee capsules and cleaning product packaging. A bottle that once held laundry detergent can end up in a paving slab or as a dispenser for soap. Previously deemed difficult to recycle or even impossible to recycle goods end up as backpacks or park benches.
Terra Cycle has been dubbed the “Google of garbage” but Szaky is careful to stick to tight margins and concentrate on its environmental credentials rather than its own growing wealth. He does not allow company cars, bonuses or any other of the usual company perks and he pegs his own salary at no more than seven times that of the lowest paid person who works for him. However, as befits a young and a cool enterprise, he has a relaxed atmosphere in his offices, with Nerf guns lying around, weekly rock climbing sessions for staff and a loose policy on dress code.
Finding the secret to getting rid of cigarette butts does not make Szaky an advocate for smoking. He is a non-smoker himself and admits that the real answer to the littering problem is for everyone to stop lighting up. That’s the only way that 37 percent of butts wouldn’t end up in the roadside. Until that happens, though, he will help the tobacco industry in addressing the waste they create. The plastic from the pellets is mainly used in industry, for objects like shipping pallets or railway sleepers. One of the curious reasons for this is that even after being melted, twice, at 204 degrees Celsius, the smell does not disappear.
Szaky got his inspiration back in his student days by seeing how worms could convert organic waste. He wanted to enter a Princeton competition so he invented a worm poop converter. His first product was a plant food fertilizer and he went straight to the top to get WalMart and Home Depot to stock it. He has never spent a penny on advertising; the business has grown through word of mouth and social media.
Cigarette smokers who feel bad about their butt ends, along with Nespresso coffee guzzlers, guilty about those throwaway pods, can rest a little easier. Knowing those bits of trash can be successfully recycled is a big relief. Stubbing out a cigarette may not be to the smoker’s own good, but it could end up being for the social good.
By Kate Henderson