When life gives you stompies, make bricks
Solving global cigarette butt waste could also radically transform the building industry, according to research coming out of Australia.
Six trillion cigarettes are produced every year around the world. These are toxic. Conservative estimates put the cumulative waste from dropped cigarette butts — after their nicotine has been sucked into people’s lungs — at 1.2-million tonnes a year.
This is waste that is not biodegradable. It sits in flowerbeds and along verges for years, choking the animals that nibble on it out of curiosity. In the process, heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, nickel and cadmium leach into the soil and into water. That leaching happens even when the butts are taken to dumps.
Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology think they have a solution: casting bricks with cigarette waste in them.
“I have dreamed for many years of finding sustainable and practical methods for solving the problem of cigarette butt pollution,” says team leader Abbas Mohajerani.
Their tests show that a brick with 1% of its material supplied from cigarette butts can cut production costs and solve an environmental headache. The bricks have the same properties as 100%-brick bricks.
That 1% mix has a dramatic effect on the brick-production process, such as a 58% drop in the energy needed to fire bricks. The clay bricks are also lighter and have better insulation properties. That means homes using these bricks can lower their heating and cooling costs.
The firing process traps any heavy metals and other pollutants in the bricks, immobilising them. “Incorporating butts into bricks can effectively solve a global litter problem because recycled cigarette butts can be placed in bricks without any fear of leaching or contamination,” says Mohajerani.
The team said if just 2.5% of global brick production included 1% cigarette butts in its mix, this would solve the problem of cigarette waste.
With the World Health Organisation projecting a 50% increase in the amount of cigarette waste in the next decade, the need for this is pressing.