Did you know that sixty billion cigarette butts are discarded in the Uk each year? That’s SIXTY BILLION in case you didn’t hear right! I’m trying to imagine what six million butts piled up together might look like and, frankly I can’t. On second thoughts, I’m not sure I want to. Looking at the discarded butts outside some of the pubs on a Saturday night is enough to turn my stomach as it is. What happens to all those butts? Should we be concerned? When it’s on the streets, it’s just a litter problem, but then what?
In case you didn’t already know, nicotine in its pure form is one of the most poisonous substances to humans – and pretty lethal to other creatures too. The nicotine in one cigarette would kill a person if injected straight into the blood. As nicotine is water soluble, it readily leaches out into the water system and can damage (or even kill) aquatic life. According to Shaun Grimes, of Igloo Environmental, cigarette butts poison our water our soil, kill wildlife and even harm children who eat them by mistake.
Shaun wants us to start caring about our butts and wants to make something positive about the massive waste problem that the UK has. He thinks that if we collected all these discarded butts, we could actually put them to much better use than into landfill. They could be fully cleaned and, together with other waste materials such as old bank notes and carpets, put into a special fireproof pillow to create efficient, recycled loft insulation. Shaun hopes to rid the streets of “ugly toxic cigarette butts and recycle them into useful loft insulation”.
It sounds pretty revolutionary to me and is a perfect illustration of how innovative thinking can help us tackle climate change and reduce the need to further plunder the earth’s resources. I’d frequently thought about the plastic bags we discard, and written about the depressingly high volume of textiles we landfill, but I’d never once thought about the small but deadly cigarette butt until Shaun’s talk at Manchester’s Green Building Expo.
I’m now imagining how great it would be if all giant ashtrays outside offices, pubs and bars collected butts and delivered them straight to a special factory for treatment and recycling. How would this affect the status of smokers?! No longer pariahs, they might even be praised for helping us tackle our building inefficiencies!
I think we’re probably a way off that. Shaun’s butt revolution is a while off yet. But if he could just get one local council (Manchester City Council, are you listening?) to commit to using those cigarette ends to a better end, then perhaps it could happen sooner than we think.