TerraCycle finds new ways to reuse tobacco, packaging

Jasmine Stoner, a server at The Hutch tavern on Glisan Street in Northeast Portland, sees firsthand how many cigarette butts get tossed in the streets.

Stoner quit smoking in December of 2011, and all the trash really gets to her. Toxic stuff ending up in landfills — or down the gullets of unsuspecting birds — includes spit-soaked cigarette filters, partially smoked cigarettes, outer plastic packaging, inner foil packaging, tar-stained rolling paper, loose tobacco pouches and ash.

“It's disgusting and wasteful, so I wanted to do something about it,” Stoner says.

No, she's not going to spend her off-duty time preaching about the evils of smoking and trying to get people to quit. Accepting that smoking will never be fully eradicated, she'd like to do something about all of those cigarette butts, which, contrary to popular belief, are not biodegradable.

So Stoner, 33, is distributing metal coffee cans to willing restaurants and bars to fill with butts and other cigarette-related trash before sending it all off to New Jersey-based TerraCycle, which is internationally known for finding new uses for hard-to-recycle materials. Servers can now end their shifts by emptying ashtrays into her cans rather than into the trash.

“As an ex-smoker, I'd like to help clean up the streets,” Stoner says.

Already, The Hutch's neighbor, American Dream Pizza, as well as The Lodge Bar & Grill near Southeast 66th Avenue and Powell Boulevard, and Patti's Deli in Gresham have agreed to participate. TerraCycle will rework waste collected through the “cigarette brigade” into a variety of industrial products, such as plastic pallets, and the company will compost any remaining tobacco.

Stoner heard about TerraCycle while collecting Capri Sun pouches to help raise funds for Woodmere Elementary School in Southeast Portland, where her son is in kindergarden. The key to her success in collecting juice pouches was enlisting the support of Capri Sun drinkers, and she expects smokers' cooperation will be essential to her latest campaign. Servers might have time to empty ashtrays into cans, she says, but they're not about to search gutters for extra butts.

“If they had some labels to put on the coffee cans, that would be great, so I'm trying to figure out a way to make a clear simple signage to put on the coffee cans,” she says.

Southwest Portland resident Katharine Cotrell wants to help Stoner create a recognizable cigarette receptacle that schoolchildren could help distribute to collect funding for education. Terracycle donates about $2 per bin of recyclable material to the collector's charity of choice. The Portlanders are trying to figure out whether there are any fire-code regulations, while Terracycle is thinking about creating a receptacle that could be standardized nationwide.

“It's an odd product to be picking up, and I'll be talking with the public health departments to see if putting a plastic bag inside the receptacle is enough to ensure safety,” Cotrell says.

Cotrell, 62, lives in the Ashcreek neighborhood and calls herself an “avid recycler,” dating back at least to when she was secretary-treasurer of an Oregon City-based plastic manufacturing company's board of directors during the 1990s.

“Now that we have a lot of green developers of apartment buildings, we'll need to get those collection bins as part of the plans,” Cotrell says.

Cigarette waste was the No. 1 item collected during the annual Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup Day, and a Keep America Beautiful study in 2009 found that cigarette waste accounted for 38 percent of all U.S. roadway litter.

Volunteers have collected more than 52 million cigarette filters from beaches in the past 25 years, and that's not counting a variety of other public outdoor spaces, including sidewalks, roadways, parks, shopping malls and office buildings.

TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky says the program to make pervasive cigarette waste recyclable for the first time, which started this autumn, “has the potential to transform public spaces across the country, drastically reducing the amount of litter that is discarded.”

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