Greenbutts aims to ease the environmental impact of the more than 2 billion pounds of cigarette butts discarded globally every year.
Standing on the shore of a California beach, Tadas Lisauskas and Xavier Van Osten witnessed the problem firsthand. The ocean was a minefield of cigarette waste. Beachgoers were battling the butts for space. The duo knew there had to be a better way to make cigarette filters.
Greenbutts was founded in 2010 as a company dedicated to mitigating the environmental and economic impact of cigarette litter. Lisauskas says he and Van Osten started by researching whether there were biodegradable butts available in the cigarette market and found that the product did not yet exist. They also found another disturbing fact: Cigarette filters were the single- most littered item in the world.
Billions of cigarette butts are flushed from city sewers into the ocean every day, where they wash up on beaches around the world. More than 2 billion pounds of butts are discarded annu- ally, according to Earth911.com, with each pound representing nearly 2,000 cigarette butts.
The process started in Van Osten’s kitchen, essentially turn- ing the small space in his apartment into a laboratory. The entrepreneurs experimented with different natural fibers: cot- ton, flax and hemp. “We knew we needed to try to find a viable solution to this problem,” says Lisauskas. “We started out with some natural materials and began trying to create some kind of material that would make a good cigarette filter.”
The first provisional patent on the concept was filed. “This idea could revolutionize the cigarette industry,” says Van Osten.
They eventually contracted with one of the premier nonwovens research institutions to identify and source the optimum perform- ing natural materials for the manufacturing of the Greenbutts filter substrate. More provisional patents were filed. After a number of attempts, it finally happened: The biodegradable butt was born.
Only 10 days after launching its website, Greenbutts began to receive emails from small independent and multinational ciga- rette companies, says Lisauskas. They also received an email from Dr. Mervyn Witherspoon, who was new product development director for Filtrona (now Essentra), the world leader in indepen- dent filter production. Witherspoon invited the new entrepre- neurs to present their ideas to the company. Afterward, he told the Greenbutts team that they needed to do more research and testing, as well as figure out how to develop the materials in a way that would be commercially viable. He suggested teaming with the research institute. Witherspoon, who later retired from Filtrona, subsequently joined Greenbutts as its lead technical advisor.
“They were putting together a product made of a range of fibers,” says Witherspoon. “I knew the best physical form for that to be is almost like a sheet of paper-like material. The industry has got equipment that can make paper filters. In that sense, we are able to use exactly the same equipment that already exists in the industry.”
The Greenbutts product is revolutionary, not just because it’s more biodegradable, but also because it can be mass-produced using existing filter making machinery, providing a cost-effective and seamless transition for the cigarette industry. “Our filter is a combination of a variety of natural materials. Flax, hemp and cotton are the three main ingredients,” says Lisauskas. “The exact list of ingredients is proprietary information. We also use an all- natural starch binder. The composition we have come up with now is the end result of four years of development work.”
Greenbutts’ prototype filters achieve tar/nicotine retention and pressure drop values within the desired ranges of those made of fine cellulose acetate filters, according to Lisauskas. The unique blend of materials will allow for standard paper- filter manufacturing run rates (140–200 meters per minute) on existing paper filter machinery. The average time period for biodegradation of Greenbutts’ nonwoven sheets with applied binders is three days, and the degradation for the filters is around 2–6 weeks depending on environmental conditions. A material is considered biodegraded when its residual tensile strength is decreased by 90 percent or more from the time it was first intro- duced into the environment.
There seems to be much debate about the definition of “bio- degradable,” but the term, as defined by the scientific community, is applied to matter that can be decomposed by living organisms, such as bacteria. A typical acetate cigarette butt takes 12 years to break down, but microscopic remnants and toxic chemicals remain longer.
When a cigarette butt is improperly discarded, it most often ends up being washed or blown into the water supply. This has been scientifically proven to have adverse consequences on aquatic and avian life that mistake the cigarette butts for food and can die from not being able to pass the acetate butts through their digestive systems.
With Greenbutts, the synthetic fibers are eliminated; the rap- idly biodegrading cigarette filter uses no artificial compounds and is free from chemical residues, according to Van Osten. “Moreover, Greenbutts filters biodegrade within days and signifi- cantly reduce the unsightly accumulation and waste cleanup costs associated with cigarette litter.”
Lisauskas says the company is about 95 percent of the way to bringing biodegradable filters to market. “We have done exten- sive testing on filtration. We just recently had our latest sensory testing done and those results were very positive,” he says. “I believe the consensus was that there was no difference in the smoking experience—feel, taste, smoke draw, etc.”
Another challenge being confronted by Greenbutts is cost. With ever-growing taxation on cigarettes, consumers are continually plagued by rising prices. Lisauskas says that any production cost increases associated with transitioning to Greenbutts filters could potentially be passed on to consumers, “who may be willing to pay a small amount more for biodegradability.”
Lisauskas may be right. According to the GfK Roper Yale Survey on Environmental Issues, more than half of those sur- veyed would be willing to spend up to 15 percent more on eco-friendly products. “People probably believed, up until a few years ago, that acetate filters were biodegradable,” says Lisauskas.
“It’s becoming obvious to most people that they are not.”
Cost is an area Greenbutts is still optimizing, but progress is being made, according to Witherspoon. “We must con- tinue to go through the devel- opment process and get to the final composition of the filter in terms of fiber content,” he says. “Then, we need to get a better understanding of the economics behind securing the raw mate- rials and the processing before looking [at] what those costs will be as compared to the acetate fil- ter. We would expect there will be some minimal additional costs, but it is all a question of balancing things out at the end of the day.”
Another factor that could play a role in the future of Greenbutts is legislation. Some U.S. states, as well as other countries, are considering legislation that could mandate companies provide eco-friendly alternatives to acetate ciga- rette filters. Two U.S. states, Maryland and California, are mulling a ban of acetate filters. California recently tried to ban
cigarette filters altogether, but that legislation failed to pass. One obstacle for legislators is there is no current alternative to the acetate filter on the market. You can’t mandate something that doesn’t exist yet, says Lisauskas. “We have been contacted by various government organizations around the world about our progress with biodegradable butts,” he says. “Once a viable product is available, I think you’ll see more governments moving toward mandating the biodegradable filter. Once environmental
legislation like this is introduced, it tends to snowball.”
The exact date Greenbutts filters hit the market will depend on various factors, including following the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s protocol for new tobacco products. Greenbutts is also focused on meeting the guidelines of the EU as well as other countries. “The roll-your-own segment may be the first to be able to use our product. We are in talks with companies who are keen to launch as early as August,” says Lisauskas. “Obviously we have to finish up our development process, but this looks like this will be our first product to market. We estimate the machine-made ciga- rette using our product could be available as early as the second quarter of 2015, once we complete our consumer testing, shelf-life testing and other tests that still need to be done.”
Moving forward, Greenbutts hopes to continue developing rela- tionships with leading environmental organizations to gain stamps of approval from those institutions aligned with the Greenbutts vision for reducing global waste. It is also staying abreast of global developments in the tobacco industry as a whole. When asked what impact the emerging e-cigarette market and the growing decline of combustible cigarette users will have on Greenbutts’ future, Lisauskas says the company is focusing on tackling the pollution problem while people still choose to smoke traditional cigarettes. “The fact is that people like to smoke tobacco, and they overwhelmingly like to smoke tobacco using a filter,” he says. “Our goal is to provide the tobacco industry, the consumer and the environment with a viable solution that is a win-win.”