No Butts left Behind: How to Pay for Cigarette Butt Collection and Recycling

Conventional wisdom holds the universal truth that littered cigarette butts are unsightly; an undesirable side effect of a habit which most smokers wish they could drop.  But while many smokers may not be successful in dropping their habit, they are far too successful at dropping their cigarette butts in the streets. According to Litter Free Planet, a nonprofit anti-litter organization, 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered worldwide annually, accounting for 75% of the 6 trillion sold. Keep America Beautiful, another anti-litter educational group, reports that cigarette butts account for an estimated 38% of litter in the United States, and states, counties, and municipalities spend a collective $1.3 billion on litter abatement annually. Another $9 billion and $241 million annually is spent by private businesses and educational institutions, respectively. If the cost of cigarette litter abatement is proportional to the percentage of the litter which it comprises, then cigarette butt litter clean-up costs the United States $4 billion per year. And this is just the direct cost. Additional costs are born in forest fires ignited by improper disposal of lit cigarettes, decreased property values in littered neighborhoods, and lost tourism revenues in regions with littered roadsides or in coastal town beaches mistaken for ashtrays.

What’s more, according to a recent article published in ScienceDaily, the plastic cellulose acetate composition of cigarette filters serves as a conduit for transporting heavy metals such as arsenic, manganese, cadmium, and lead. These pose a significant potential harm to marine life, especially if they enter the food chain and begin to bioaccumulate. Much is known about the negative effects of bioaccumulation in the marine food chain, especially relating to the human consumption of Tuna containing mercury, which exists at low levels at the bottom of the food chain, but steadily concentrates as it moves up the food chain as it cannot be expelled from soft tissues. Additionally, laboratory research in a 2014 study published in Current Environmental Health Reports found that for 1.1 liters of water, a single cigarette butt is sufficient to kill half of the lab minnows exposed to the solution within a 48-hour period.

Let’s Get to the Bottom of this… What Can Be Done?

The mayor of our benevolent neighbors to the north, the Vancouverites of British Columbia, has proposed a 5 cent deposit per cigarette or one dollar per pack, to be charged at purchase and returned upon the relinquishment of the aforementioned butts. This bill is in committee. Similar policy was proposed in Maine in 2008, but died in committee, and is currently being proposed in New York state. The New York bill is currently in committee, as well. Since no such deposit program currently exists, there isn’t a case study available. However, given the fact that ten states in the US have bottle deposit laws, with no single law written or implemented in the same manner, a successful cigarette deposit program can be modeled off existing bottle law achievements.

The Fundamentals of Successfully Collecting Cigarette Butts

Upon reviewing various case studies of existing bottle laws outlined in a 2011 report published by the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland and details within the three cigarette butt deposit program policy proposals mentioned above, these have been determined to be the main takeaway points:

Successful policy will have a larger, rather than smaller, regional scope. A larger regional scope will result in less smuggling of cigarettes not covered by the deposit law into the region covered by the deposit law. This is so because the larger the region, the further the majority of the population has to travel to exit the region and purchase cigarettes not covered by the deposit program. A successful program will have a large percentage of the cigarettes smoked within the region purchased in that same region.

Fraud can be reduced with region specific barcodes or other identifying characteristics, such as a sticker. In Michigan, cans have a state specific mark. To further prevent fraud, marks should be changed frequently to reduce the ability to produce counterfeit cigarette boxes.

The higher the deposit, the greater the participation, but the larger the incentive to commit fraud. Higher bottle deposits are highly correlated with higher participation rates. The state with the highest bottle deposit is Michigan, at 10 cents per item, and Michigan subsequently has the highest participation rate at 94.2 percent. However, Michigan also needs to take the most significant measures against fraud. They have developed a machine readable, state specific mark that is read at the so-called “reverse vending machines.” This ensures that bottles and cans purchased outside of the state cannot be returned for a deposit refund.

Extended Producer Responsibility. This is the largest challenge, policy-wise. It is necessary for cigarette companies to handle the burden of paying for the system that receives the cigarette butts and recycles and disposes of them, accordingly. This will incentivize the companies to improve efficiency of collection and disposal within the legal framework and minimize the cost of recycling and disposal.

Back of the Envelope Calculations. Using smoking data, cigarette pricing, bottle law participation numbers, census data, and estimated litter removal costs, a few conclusions were drawn. Assuming a $1 deposit per pack, or five cents per cigarette, and a participation rate of 80% (the average of the 10 states with bottle laws), there would be about $4 billion per year in unclaimed cigarette deposits. In North Carolina there would be $146.6 million. The actual participation rate may be higher or lower, of course. So, accounting for cigarette butts that are purchased internationally, the amount of cigarette litter would decrease slightly less than 80%. A reduction in cigarette litter of 80% would reduce the national cost of cigarette associated litter removal from $4 billion to $0.8 billion. This sizeable fund would leave each state significant financial resources for litter removal, educational campaigns, and scientific studies into cigarette butt recycling or alternative material development.

Programs like this have great potential, with the biggest hurdle to implementation being funding. Given the policy and financial success of bottle deposit laws across the country, cigarette deposit laws have much promise.

Learn more about waste management projects at the UNC Environmental Finance Center.

Evan Kirk graduated from The University of North Carolina at UNC Chapel Hill in May 2016 with a degree in Environmental Science, concentrating in energy and sustainability.

The contents of all posts authored by students are solely the responsibility of the authors. Statements made and opinions expressed are strictly those of the authors and not the Environmental Finance Center or The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at


  1. Stephanie Holmes

    Cigarette waste is a huge environmental hazard today. Most of the cigarette filters are carcinogenic and can contaminate drinking water too if disposed of in our water bodies.

    There is also the fear of birds, fish and animals eating cigarette butts that can be disastrous,” says Dr. Vishal Rao, oncologist, and head and neck surgeon at the Bengaluru-based HealthCare Global (HCG) Cancer Center.

  2. Dionisio Vega

    How do I get pay for from cigorest buds?

  3. Pete Junger

    Should we be launching a campaign to change the behaviour of smokers?

    Making the planet livable may require just that.

  4. Richard Defranzo

    How do I get paid for saving cigarette pack in recycling them with you people

  5. Richard Defranzo

    I want to be part of the recycling team and making a couple of bucks after which wouldn’t be bad either no butts about it LOL

  6. james anderson

    The only thing TerraCycle does not take is cigarette packages and cartons. However, these are made of paper and can likely be recycled through your curbside recycling program along with old cereal boxes, newspapers and junk mail. There are several smaller programs to recycle cigarette ashes and waste.