Turning Philly's cigarette butts into park benches

Ernel “Ernie” Simpson, PhD explains how cigarette butts can now be recycled at TerraCycle, a recycling company in Trenton, NJ, March 29, 2018.

Shannon Dougherty is absolutely giddy that, on a pole outside the Fishtown bar she owns, there’s a small metal box that’s the latest tool in her personal war on litter.

“There are so many problems in the world right now that are so complicated,” said Dougherty, the owner of Cedar Point Bar & Kitchen. “This just seems like an easy one to fix.”

The 19-inch rectangular receptacle is called a TerraCycle “zero waste” box. Installed in February by the Fishtown Neighbors Association, the box can hold hundreds of cigarette butts before they’re shipped to New Jersey, where they will be processed and recycled into such things as ashtrays, fence posts, industrial supplies, and park benches.

And the $99 box is just one small step toward Trenton-based TerraCycle’s ultimate goal: recycling everything.

Camera icon Anna Orso / Staff
A cigarette recycling receptacle outside Cedar Point Bar & Kitchen in Fishtown.

A large part of achieving that is addressing cigarette butts, which are the most littered item in the world and make up more than one-third of the roadway litter in the United States, according to a 2010 report prepared for the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. Philadelphia has the highest rate of smoking among the 10 largest cities in America and a well-documented litter problem.

There’s just something about flicking away the end of a cigarette that doesn’t trigger the same “litter” association as throwing a plastic bottle on the ground, observed Tom Morales, the program manager for education and litter at Keep America Beautiful. Many smokers believe that cigarette butts are biodegradable, he said, but the filters are in fact made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that can remain in the environment for decades.

Enter TerraCycle. The 15-year-old company, once called a “garbage start-up,” was founded by current CEO Tom Szaky, a Princeton dropout who has since built it up to employ about 70 people in Trenton and 200 worldwide.

In Szaky’s ideal world, everything is recycled, which is why a large part of the business is simply testing processes for how they can break down different types of trash into something usable. What makes TerraCycle’s model complicated is that each type of garbage — everything from diapers to shoes to juice pouches to hair — has a different process.

Cigarette and tobacco waste, which TerraCycle started accepting in 2012, is its own animal. The receptacles themselves must be weather-resistant and flame-resistant and something must draw smokers’ attention to them, whether a bright color or a sign. On the side of Fishtown’s custom boxes is printed: “Gimme those butts!”

Once each receptacle is filled, subcontractors empty the bins and transport them to TerraCycle distribution centers. Cigarette butts from Philadelphia and the rest of the Northeastern United States go to a center in Trenton, where they are collected by the truckload (that’s about 40,000 pounds’ worth of butts) and then shipped off to the Midwest to be processed, using TerraCycle’s proprietary recycling system.

TerraCycle’s global vice president of research and development, Ernel “Ernie” Simpson, was part of the team that spent a year developing the recycling process for cigarette butts and said the company is the only one in the world recycling them that way.

First the butts are separated. Organic compounds such as tobacco and paper are composted and used to create specific types of fertilizer, while inorganic components — namely, the filters — are cleaned and shredded.

Camera icon BEVERLY SCHAEFER/ FOR THE INQUIRER
Ernel Simpson displays cleaned and shredded cigarette butts that are part of the way through the TerraCycle recycling process.

After that, the material is “densified” into a powderlike substance.

Camera icon BEVERLY SCHAEFER/ FOR THE INQUIRER
Ernel Simpson explains how cigarette butts can now be recycled at TerraCycle. After the tobacco and outer paper are stripped away, the filters are cleaned and densified.

Then, it’s transformed again into tiny granules of plastic that TerraCycle sells to other companies that use them to build new items, everything from picnic tables to decking materials.

Camera icon BEVERLY SCHAEFER/ FOR THE INQUIRER
Ernel Simpson holds pellets of plastic made from processed and recycled cigarette butts.

The process took years to perfect, Simpson said. Every day, TerraCycle receives three or four new materials from around the world that they try to figure out how to break down into something else.

Szaky said TerraCycle is in the process of raising $25 million to fund mergers and acquisitions with the hopes of one day taking the company public. It’s contracted with Target, Walmart, Procter & Gamble, and PepsiCo. But he said he still prides himself on his company’s connection with municipalities, neighborhood organizations, and with the city of Trenton, where he plans to keep TerraCycle headquartered no matter how big it grows.

“We view ourselves as a local, global idea,” said Szaky, who was in Budapest, Hungary, and headed to Geneva when reached last week. “It’s all about it coming to life locally, whether it’s cigarettes in Philly or ocean plastic in Rio.”

But he offered a reminder: These processes couldn’t happen without community buy-in and those small, metal boxes. In Philly, they’re bound to become more common.

Keep America Beautiful announced last week that it’s pouring nearly $300,000 into dozens of grants to address cigarette litter across the country. One of those grant recipients is Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, the local outpost of the nonprofit, which will in turn fund seven new $2,500 micro grants for more cigarette recycling receptacles in Philadelphia, said Michelle Feldman, KPB’s executive director.

Last year, KPB — in concert with the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet — gave out five similar “micro grants” to neighborhood-based organizations. Fishtown Neighbors Association was one of them and has since installed three of their six TerraCycle receptacles so far, according to Monica King, who chairs the FNA’s beautification committee. They’re located outside the bars Cedar Point and Johnny Brenda’s as well as outside Holy Name of Jesus Parish.

More receptacles will likely pop up this spring in Chinatown, Mayfair, West Philadelphia, and Southwest Philadelphia as a result of last year’s micro grants.

Barb Gress, the director of the Mayfair Community Development Corporation, said the micro grant the organization won last year will fund about a dozen receptacles in the neighborhood that will be installed in the next two months. Her hope is that residents can start seeing cigarette butts in the same way they see plastic bottles.

“It’s important communities see all types of singular displays of littering as equally important,” she said. “It’s all litter.”