One reason that cigarette butts are the most littered trash in the world is that people tend to assume that the butts are biodegradable. But the filters are actually made from plastic. Now Korean researchers have discovered that the plastic waste can be transformed into a valuable energy-storing material.
“Trillions of cigarette butts are discarded around the world each year–people can easily find this nasty waste everywhere,” says Gil-Pyo Kim, one of the co-authors of the new study. “Numerous countries are challenged to establish strict regulations for the disposal of these materials out of necessity. I had the inspiration to ask, isn’t there any way to use the used cigarette butts a bit more effectively?”
Burning the old filters at a high temperature turns them into a form of carbon that could be used to help store energy in everything from smartphones to electric cars and wind turbines. The recycled butts work better, it turns out, than current state-of-the-art carbon or graphene-based supercapacitors. The new material could also be used to help lithium ion batteries store more energy, or–a bit ironically–to help purify air or water.
This isn’t the first project to attempt to recycle cigarette butts. The recycling company Terracycle, for example, has collected millions of butts over the last couple of years.
But while the Terracycle program turns the waste into plastic pellets that can only be used in low-value materials like plastic lumber, the Korean team has come up with product that’s in high demand. By creating new value for something that is typically considered trash, cities might start finding it a little easier to afford to clean the butts up.
“Our research is only the first step,” says Kim. “We expect that the applications of this new material can be expanded. It has enormous market potential.”