From worm poop to cigarette butts.
When you really think about it, there is a connection. They're both disgusting, the sorts of things you would not want to touch, and the quantities of them are astronomical.
For a Trenton-based recycling company named TerraCycle, which made its name selling worm-generated fertilizer, there's a potential gold mine in cigarette butts.
TerraCycle has found a way to recycle cigarette butts into plastic lumber, pallets, bins and ashtrays. A house, for example, could be framed from the recycled material.
As long as there's a market, there's an almost inexhaustible supply of cigarette butts: There are an estimated 45 million cigarette smokers in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and discarded butts account for a huge proportion of roadside litter.
Through its Cigarette Waste Brigade program, launched last month, TerraCycle collects discarded cigarettes, melts the filters and mixes the material with other recyclables to create plastic pellets, which are then used to create industrial products.
The one-of-a-kind process owes a lot to a simple realization: Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a key ingredient in plastic.
"Ninety seven percent of cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a material that's used widely," said Ernie Simpson, TerraCycle's vice president for research and development. "A lot of playing cards are made from cellulose acetate."
TerraCycle markets its pellets for industrial use. Among other things, the pellets can be used to make plastic lumber, pallets, bins and ashtrays.
Because the material was once exposed to nicotine, Simpson said TerraCycle will not market the pellets for use in household plastic products.
It will, however, talk up the possibility of turning cigarette filters into products that could frame houses, hold material and support shipments.
"We're particularly jazzed about the pallets, because those cigarette manufacturers could literally be shipping new cigarettes made on pallets made from cigarette filters," Simpson told The Times of Trenton (http://bit.ly/TcmYQq). "To me, that's a really cool concept."
TerraCycle has partnered with Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., the maker of Natural American Spirit cigarettes, on the Cigarette Waste Brigade program.
The tobacco company is funding the program in part to help clean streets littered with cigarette butts, Sante Fe spokesperson Cressida Lozano said.
"You don't have to walk or drive very far to see that smokers often discard cigarette waste in ways that litter the environment," Lozano said in a press release.
TerraCycle began testing its cigarette waste recycling process by collecting butts from its own employees and those of nearby companies, spokesperson Albe Zakes said.
"We have enough smokers in our offices and the nearby offices to supply some of the test material," Zakes said.
It took TerraCycle about six months to develop the recycling process, Simpson said.
It began by deconstructing the cigarettes, composting the tobacco and cigarette paper. Next, something had to be done about the filters, Simpson said.
He said he knew from the start he wanted to mix the cellulose acetate with other materials.
"People have tried to recycle cigarette filters before, but their approach was to reuse the filter material as a standalone material," Simpson said. "The concept I work on is if you are able to separate the materials and blend them with other materials, you're able to come up with usable industrial blends."
TerraCycle has created a business around the idea of repurposing pervasive, difficult-to-reuse waste.
It has so far tackled candy wrappers, juice boxes, electronics and packaging of all types.
Its next targets?
"Used gum," Simpson said. "And dirty diapers."
Information from: The (Trenton, N.J.) Times, http://www.nj.com/times