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Greenbutts: Is Greening Cigarettes a Good Idea?

| Friday May 28th, 2010 | 16 Comments


Sometimes ideas sound better on paper (or monitor) than in reality, and I’m wondering if Greenbutts is one of them.

Greenbutts seeks to do something about a source of blight and environmental impact that cuts across cultures and classes: cigarette butt waste. I’ve long been astonished by how many people casually toss their cigarettes, often still lit, into the street or gutter. According to the Greenbutts site, an estimated 4.5 trillion of them a year. Small butts, big impact.

Greenbutts solution is to create filters that are made from a blend of cotton and hemp, and can include tree, fruit, herb or flower seeds, capable of growing, “…when placed under a thin layer of soil.” Both biodegradable and compostable, they would seem an ideal solution to a huge problem. According to the Greenbutts site, “In the 2006 International Coastal Cleanup, cigarettes and cigarette butts constituted 24.7% of the total collected pieces of garbage, over twice as many as any other category.”

While I applaud their intention, I foresee some unintended consequences.

Smoking, no matter how organic the ingredients, is a deadly, addictive activity. Creating something that lends cigarette smoking a cleaner, healthier air to it could lower the bar to young, new smokers starting, and those already smoking having a further rationalization to keep doing it. This is definitely a case where giving a product a greener profile does not necessarily mean increased well being for all.

And though its site makes a point to say Greenbutts doesn’t condone littering, encouraging customers to put them in their garden or compost bin, the reality remains: Smokers often think nothing of tossing their butt into the street. And with Greenbutts, they may have even less reason, in their minds, to refrain from littering. Only the most motivated would likely collect and take them home to compost.

Yes, these filters can certainly biodegrade in less than the 10-15 years typical of conventional cigarette butts, but that will only happen if they’re left out in the open or in a loose pile of other organic matter, not tightly compressed in the sealed environment of a landfill, thus denying or at least vastly slowing the biodegrading process.

I’m not saying Greenbutts shouldn’t be made. Attempts to reduce waste are definitely to be encouraged. Along with that, however, there needs to be more effective efforts to reduce smoking, especially in prevention from it even starting.

Alternatively, to expect all buildings to provide ashtrays where their tenants smoke is foolish and thinking about the problem backwards. Until we substantially reduce how many people smoke, there will continue to be a waste issue that makes its way down our drains and into our oceans.

That said, smoking isn’t going away any time soon, Greenbutts are one way to make a positive impact in present time, however potentially flawed it might be.

Readers: What’s your thoughts on Greenbutts, how effective this startup could be  in terms of waste reduction, and the potential negative impacts it could have?

Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations around, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media.


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  • Paul Ledesma

    In spite of the biodegradibility of the product, it may solve nothing. Cigarette butts contain highly toxic compounds – heavy metals, arsenic, nicotine. when these butts degrade, these chemicals will remain in the environment. A standard laboratory test conducted at San Diego State University showed that a single smoked butt soaking in a liter of water could kill fish. This product doesn't fix that problem.

  • http://www.care2.com/c2c/people/profile.html Leslie Back

    I confess to being a former smoker. But, even in those days, 13+ years ago now, I did NOT throw down my butt. I had the nastiest car ashtray in America but I did not litter.
    In a perfect world I would say let's just increase anti- smoking and anti-litter campaigns, but those are long term solutions at best. And, well, we need all involved in green to move us ahead so okay, then , green butts it is! But I agree with the post by Paul also, what about the chemicals? And how green is the production process?

    • Paul Arthur Smith

      Paul, Leslie, these are all good questions to ask. I wonder if the Greenbutts people will reply? However, I don't think the butts are full of toxins, they're made of cotton and hemp fiber, plus whatever seeds they mix in. But with that, I wonder if the seeds get heated to the point of not being usable?

      • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

        The other problem with these seed bombs is that they are likely filled with seeds from plants that grow easily and aggressively- aka weeds. If the company doesn't pay attention to local biodeversity, these are just invasive species bombs.

      • Daniel

        Hey Paul,
        The butts aren’t initially toxic, but they’re filters. The stuff (toxins, death chemicals, etc) they filter out of the smoke stays in them. So the new butts are perfectly fine, it’s after they have been used that they become the chemical problem.

  • Chaz

    I see a lot of apples on the sides of the roads in our future! I wonder if this will ruin the taste.. it might put costumers off. All in all even if cigarettes still contain toxins.. at least this will ease the impact. You shouldn't shoot down an idea just because it only solves half the problem. Baby steps. If you really wanted to solve everything make alcohol and cigs illegal and legalize Marijuana.

  • Paul Arthur Smith

    Good point Jen! Greenbutts, are you listening?

    • http://www.care2.com/c2c/people/profile.html Leslie Back

      That is a great point that Jen brings up and one I had not thought of. Hmmm, wonder if Greenbutts is reading and will weigh in?
      Like so many other green ventures it is a balance of good and bad. Does the potentially negative downsides with the seeds negate the positive of more biodegradable butts?
      It reminds me of the debate with organic food. If you want organic grapes but they have to be shipped in from another country have you really made the best choice? Would non organic local strawberries have been the better choice for the planet?

  • iwalk iwrite

    People don't seem to think of cigarette butts as litter. It's crazy. They smoke and throw….would they do that with a can? Well, yeah, some would.

    I'm a non-smoker. My husband smokes…but he always puts his butts in the bin.

    People are not going to stop smoking (shopping, driving, drinking, consuming etc.), so I think anything that reduces the negative impact of these things is worthwhile. Like someone else said – “baby steps”.

    By the way, I was held in my local store this morning after attempting to buy cigarettes for my husband. I am closer to 40 than 18 (the legal age to buy cigarettes), but I had to wait in the naughty corner until my husband brought in my passport!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Nanny state!

    (sorry your post came through whilst I'm still calming down).

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  • http://twitter.com/britesprite britesprite

    As an ex smoker I was always amazed by the zero provision for cigarette butts on the street. I always tried to find a drain to drop them in, not wishing to do the properly responsible thing (ie, put thespendt butt in my pocket .. erch!).

    I like the idea, but support fully Jen's thoughts. However, I have to hope tobacco will be made illegal before Greenbutts gets off the ground. sorry guys, but health is more important than green-ness.

  • http://twitter.com/PathAcross Lauren Hawley

    Would they cost more than regular cigarettes?

  • Penelope

    As a part time smoker I love the idea!!! I think a lot of the chemicals come from all that is added to a typical cigarette filter and tobacco. Greenbutts indicates that it is intended to be used with additive free tobacco which in theory would make it a lot less toxic….or at least as healthy as smoking pot…which a ton of people in california are trying to legalize right now!

    Also seeds need to be cultivated…just throwing your cigarette on the ground is probably not going to grow anything….I have a hard enough time getting my plants at home to sprout ;)

    Im all for creative solutions to help solve biggest problems…this is not a silver bullet… but it is a definite step in the right direction!

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