300 million cigarette butts and counting: Indian company converts them into beautiful products

The most littered product in the world does not need to end up in landfills.
Ameya Paleja
Cigarette butts
Cigarette butts

porpeller/iStock 

  • Established in 2018, the startup has processed over 300 million cigarette butts.
  • It has over 250 collection centers that engage more than 2,000 people to collect cigarette butts.
  • The technology has already been licensed to other units in South Asia.

Around 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered worldwide yearly, making them the top item in the UN Environment Programme’s list of most discarded items. Most cigarette butts contain plastic filters that will take hundreds of years to decompose. On top of this, the World Health Organization points out that this mountain of butts contains more than 7000 toxic chemicals, which leech into the environment when discarded.

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A Noida, India-based company called CODE Effort wants to change this by using cigarette butts to make new products, turning them into soft toy stuffing, mosquito repellant, and recycled stationery. The company’s journey began in 2018 when brothers Naman and Vipul Gupta encountered a problem with cigarette butts in their native city of Noida in Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian state.

Naman Gupta, a commerce graduate, became curious about the after-life cycle of cigarette butts which led him down the path of discovery on how to fashion useful products from discarded waste. According to the company’s website, CODE Effort has so far recycled more than 300 million cigarette butts. The company’s name is a backronym, Conserve Our Depleting Environment (CODE), and engages more than 2,000 people from the economically poor sections of society, giving them the means to make a living as well as contribute to the sustainability of the planet.

How does the process work?

CODE Effort has a vast network of more than 200 collection centers spread across India, where more than five million cigarette butts are handled daily. After collection, the butts are sent to the factory in Noida, where all waste components are individually recycled.

The leftover tobacco in the butts is composted using a completely aerobic process which produces a dry powder, which is sold off. The company ensures that the composting is done aerobically (in the presence of oxygen) so that the leachate - the water that leaches out during the process — does not harm the soil or groundwater.

The paper holding the tobacco and the filter is ground into a pulp and mixed with special ingredients and fragrances to make mosquito repellants. The company can also make a wide range of products from this paper that can be recycled further. Some of these products involve infusing the paper with seeds so that it can be planted in the ground after use and grow into basil, marigold, or other plants.

The filters are recycled using biodegradable and organic chemicals in a four-step process. The filter is first to cut into fine fibers and transferred to a drum containing organic chemicals, where it sits for an entire day. Following this, the fibers are dried out and end up resembling cotton. These pseudo-cotton-like fibers are then used as stuffing inside toys, pillows, mattresses, and other products.

Code Effort has an in-house testing and quality control process for the stuffing it produces before it is used for these products. “Our recycling process is ISO 9001:2015, ISO 14001:2015, and ISO 45001:2018 certified,” Naman Gupta told IE in an email.“Our closed-loop recycling process ensures 100 percent utilization of the materials, a NET ZERO carbon footprint, and fosters a circular economy.”

300 million cigarette butts and counting: Indian company converts them into beautiful products
Stuffed keychains made from recycling cigarette butts

The company uses most of the stuffing in products sold under its brand name but also provides stuffing to a few clients engaged in making sustainable products from upcycled materials.

Sourcing cigarette butts

Since the company is located in the northern part of India, a very large country, IE enquired how the logistics of sourcing the cigarette butts were handled and then channeled to a central recycling location.

“We engage with 2000+ rag-pickers across India to collect cigarette butts. It helps us increase our collection rate and foster livelihood opportunities for them,” Gupta told IE. “We have created a business model wherein our associates, which are currently present in over 250 locations in the country, get money for their supplies.” The company also has an incentive program for volunteers to send them cigarette butts for recycling and engages with companies in end-to-end sustainability campaigns to maximize quantities sourced.

“These procurement mechanisms help in sourcing cigarette butts across India and reduce transportation costs to a greater extent,” Gupta added. ”Improving government policies and logistic infrastructure makes it financially viable to centralize a recycling plant while leveraging procurement mechanisms.”

Plans for the future

In addition to providing a source of income for 2000+ rag pickers, the central recycling plant also employs 100 women who turn cigarette butts into products of everyday use. “Over the next three years - we believe that business-to-business and Environmental, Social, and Governance goals at larger organizations will form 75 of our revenues,” Gupta told IE.

CODE Effort does not want to be limited to operating only within Indian borders. In 2021, it opened the doors for overseas partnerships and is currently working in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. The overseas partnership procedures include the import-export of cigarette butts, technology sharing under our licensing agreement, and virtual training for learning purposes.

The company plans to expand its procurement and recycling capacity from 30 to 300 tonnes per month by 2025.