See-V-Lab is being carried out within the context of Interreg Euregio Meuse-Rhine, with 798.860 euro from the European Regional Development Fund

Impact Strategy Mission – Cigarette butts’ pollution

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For the purpose of this mission, we were asked to analyse a problem in its whole ecosystem
before thinking about concrete solutions. When we were given the theme of urban pollution, a
few different topics presented themselves to us: we thought about air pollution, single use
recipients thrown in the streets, and of course pollution caused by cigarette butts. All things
considered, we did not hesitate much for two simple reasons: first, we had to choose a
problematic that was not too difficult to observe. Secondly, we picked which option felt the
most urgent to us.
At first, we conducted some desk research that enlightened us about the scope of the
issue and the growing interest of many international instances such as the EU with regard to
cigarette butts. This toxic waste has indeed a tremendous harmful impact on our environment
at large as one cigarette butt, composed of no less than 4.000 chemicals and heavy metals,
pollutes approximately 500 litres of water. As 137 million of these toxic wastes are dumped
every day throughout the world, one can thus easily imagine that cigarette butts have a
tremendous impact on the environment, especially regarding water pollution and the marine
ecosystem. This first step allowed us to identify four axes that were playing a key role in the
ecosystem of the problem: tobacco industries, public services, pedestrian smokers, and startups
that were already dealing with the issue.
After having identified those main actors, we exchanged knowledge and experience with
them to put together the pieces of the puzzle. What these interviews taught us is that all actors
are connected, and that this is in everyone’s interests to find a solution for every stakeholder.
The deep analysis of this matter and the different perspectives allowed us to obtain key
information and draw some conclusions that we would not have thought about when initiating
this mission. First, we discovered how complex the collaboration between public services and
start-ups is for the moment, and how the current costs restrain Liege administration’s field of
action. Start-ups work to both improve the methods of collection of cigarette butts and find
innovative ways to recycle this waste that is still not recycled properly. Pedestrian smokers who
throw their cigarette butts in the streets or in the sewers do not do it with the sole purpose of
polluting, but face “pains” that are still not addressed in an efficient manner. We learned as well
that the tobacco industry blamed mostly the bad habits of the smoker, and did not feel
accountable for the pollution of cigarette butts in nature. If anything, we have the certitude that
improving awareness of smokers must be a priority. But the most unexpected lesson we learned
is that there is a great number of actors in the sector that use greenwashing as their main
marketing tool, as one can make money easily if entering the recycling industry without caring
about the environment.
We came up with some ideas to apply locally. We decided to focus on the collection of
cigarette butts, thus helping the fight against filthiness in our streets and preventing the cigarette
butts to end up in water channels by focussing on the first actor, the smoker who throws his
cigarette. Our three main ideas are : the installation of voting ashtrays in the city, which is not
something new but could motivate the smoker to walk a longer distance to dispose of his
cigarette butt ; the sale of customised pocket ashtrays at relevant sale points ; and finally, the
installation of sewer ashtrays that would gather the cigarette butt before it enters the water
Overall, we have witnessed a growing interest for the pollution caused by cigarette butts,
so we feel there are good reasons to be optimistic that efficient solutions can be found.