Visitors to Middleburg might notice streets that aren’t as littered with cigarette butts as there were in previous years.
Since last year, the town has encouraged smokers to dispose of their cigarette butts in special receptacles that it installed on the sides of trashcans along Washington, Federal and Marshall streets. The town’s maintenance department collects the butts and hands them over to the Go Green Committee to be shipped to TerraCycle, an international waste management company that has recycled nearly 58 tons of cigarette waste since 2012.
Councilman Peter Leonard-Morgan, the committee’s Town Council liaison, said the initiative to clean the town’s streets of cigarette butts kicked off in spring 2017, after volunteers for the town’s bi-annual cleanup event reported finding hundreds of them in the roads, sidewalks, parking lots, bushes and storm drains.
“By the time I was done picking all those up, I was kind of thoroughly grossed out,” said Lynne Kaye, the town’s sustainability consultant and a Go Green Committee volunteer.
Kaye said that after that experience, she went online to find out more about the hazards of littered cigarette butts and came across TerraCycle’s recycling program. Following a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, where she noticed cigarette-recycling receptacles attached to trashcans, Kaye proposed a town partnership with TerraCycle—something George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College are also doing.
Last spring, the Town Council approved that partnership and the $2,135 purchase of 13tube-shaped receptacles, which measure a little more than a foot in height, attach to the sides of trashcans across town and were halfway funded by a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Litter Prevention and Recycling Grant.
Almost a year later, Middleburg’s cigarette butt recycling program is a well-oiled process that’s working to rid the town of potentially toxic cigarette filters, which are made of a non-biodegradable plastic that can contaminate the water system when washed into storm drains. According to the Clean Virginia Waterways nonprofit, one cigarette butt is enough to contaminate two gallons of water.
“Once those cigarette butts get littered, they sort of never go away,” Kaye said.
Twice a month, Maintenance Superintendent Tim Cole collects the butts from the receptacles and hands them to Leonard-Morgan, who sends them off to TerraCycle every few months.
The company then separates the components. The paper and tobacco are composted into soil or fertilizer. The filters are melted into a hard plastic, which is distributed to different manufacturers to turn into products like shipping pallets, ashtrays and park benches. “It’s amazing what they can pull out of these little filters,” Leonard-Morgan said.
TerraCycle publicist Alex Payne said that the town has sent in 7 pounds of cigarette butts. “This may not sound like much, but it’s fairly significant considering Middleburg’s size,” he said.
Moving forward, Leonard-Morgan said that aside from the committee posting about the initiative on its Facebook and Instagram profiles, there’s not too much it can do to encourage smokers to stop snuffing their cigarette butts out on the ground, since the practice has virtually always been accepted in most societies.
“It’s been happening for a hundred years,” he said. “It’s very hard to get people to stop doing that.”
Kaye said that the town would work to attract more attention to the initiative and discuss with business owners the possibility of installing their own cigarette butt recycling receptacles.
“The biggest challenge is getting people to use the receptacles,” she said. “We really want people to know they’re there and to use them.”