Green cigarette butts?

Fully biodegradable cigarette filters containing plant seeds – a great green innovation or greenwashing?

I admit to being a heavily addicted smoker. I’ve often joked that I may need to take up heroin dealing to pay for my tobacco habit (tobacco taxes are incredibly high in Australia); but it’s really not a laughing matter. Given the nature of this site, my hypocrisy in this aspect is not lost upon me and I have little doubt my addiction will likely bring me a premature and painful death. Even more than the health and financial aspects, the environmental impact of tobacco smoking cause me great angst.

(Update – I made the switch from smoking tobacco cigarettes to ecigs on July 24 2012; and haven’t looked back. It’s worked well for me.)

One of the more recent discoveries I made about my filthy habit was in regard to cigarette butts. I always thought cigarette filters were made from plant material such as cotton. They do have their roots in cellulose, but are actually a form of plastic – polymer acetate – and can take anywhere from 1 – 15 years to break down depending on environmental conditions and whose studies you read.

The composition of cigarette filter aside, cigarette smoke contains all sorts of nasty chemicals produced by the burning of the tobacco and the many, many substances added by tobacco companies. There may also be pesticide residue in the tobacco.

Some of these chemicals are present in high concentrations in a discarded butt. The chemicals can leach from cigarette butts when exposed to water and can be toxic to small crustaceans and bacteria.

According to, an estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are improperly discarded worldwide every year; so it’s a massive problem.

A company called Green Butts has developed a 100% biodegradable cigarette filter with a twist. When placed under a thin layer of soil the cigarette filter will sprout plants. Made from a hemp and cotton blend, the company says their green cigarette filters can be combined with a wide variety of seed including grass, flower, fruit, herb, or even trees. Wheat flour and water bind the filter elements as they are spun together.

I like the idea of the butt, but the seed issue bothers me. Smoking shouldn’t be made to look cool or come across as being green. A used cigarette butt is toxic waste; to represent it differently is a little unsettling in my opinion. However, perhaps the growing plant would help “detoxify” the butt? I really don’t know.

Maybe it’s somewhat of a step in the right direction? Perhaps the company might consider a similar product without the seeds. The company does point out that their “green” butts shouldn’t be seen as a justification for littering.

Tobacco smoking can never be “environmentally friendly”; it’s something I don’t try to fool myself into thinking and the butts are just one aspect. Commercial tobacco has a huge environmental impact; from cultivation to consumption. At best, a degree of harm reduction can be achieved – such as by smoking organically grown tobacco. While organic tobacco doesn’t make smoking cool, healthy or “green”, at least its additive free and grown without pesticides.

As far as I know, you cannot buy “organic” tobacco in Australia; it’s just not available like it is in the USA.

I looked at growing my own, even some of our own native tobacco species, partly to reduce my smoking environmental impact. It turns out that In South Australia and I think in most Australian states, you cannot grow any Nicotiana species for the purposes of smoking it as it would be seen as avoiding the tobacco excise tax (currently around AUD$309 a kilogram). If caught, you could be heavily fined . To stay on the right side of the law, you would have to register as a tobacco grower which is a complicated and expensive undertaking.

I believe there’s a local market here for organically grown tobacco and for Australian smokers that won’t give up for whatever reasons; a company could do well catering to those of us who would like to lighten our tobacco related environmental footprint a little.


Tobacco’s environmental impact