When entrepreneurs Tadas Lisauskas and Xavier Van Osten first envisioned it, the biodegradable cigarette butt seemed like a sure-fire winner.
The need was obvious. The world’s most common piece of trash, discarded cigarette filters gunk up gutters, beaches, parks. Made primarily of cellulose acetate fibers, a sort of spun plastic, they require a decade or more to break down. When consumed by fish and birds, they clog the intestines and cause death by starvation.
A green alternative? Seemed like a natural.
“We thought it would be the easiest process,” said Van Osten, 43. “It’s a cigarette filter. How hard can it be?”
Nine years later, they have an answer. How hard is it? Moon-shot hard. Mapping-the-human-genome hard. Reversing-climate-change hard. This Earth Day, the saga of San Diego’s Greenbutts LLC is an illuminating test case of how even “simple” solutions to ecological issues can stumble over technical hurdles, public health concerns, cut-throat competition and ethical trade-offs.
To succeed, Lisauskas and Van Osten’s company would need buy-in from Big Tobacco, yet those multinationals have been only occasionally interested.
Eliminating 4.5 trillion butts each year from the world’s streets, fields and beaches may seem an ecological triumph, yet environmental organizations fret that backing Greenbutts could be seen as sending a pro-smoking message.
Significantly reducing trash would be a public policy win, but Greenbutts has failed to ignite any passion among Democratic or Republican lawmakers.
“No one has been willing to support it,” Van Osten said. “We haven’t been able to get any support from either side.”
Finally, the partners believe they are on the verge of a breakthrough. Their filters, made of natural abaca fiber, cotton flock and industrial hemp held together with a starch-based binder, will have its commercial debut this summer. It will be used in a new line of cigarettes to be sold in Canada.
“Hopefully, that will spur other tobacco companies to follow suit,” Lisauskas said, “because they’ll have proof of concept.”
Seeds of an idea
While Van Osten occasionally lights up, Lisauskas is not a smoker. Now.
“People look at you like you’re a leper when you smoke in California,” said Lisauskas, a 45-year-old Golden State native who lives in Encinitas.
Fresh out of Long Beach State with an international business degree, he decided to test the entrepreneurial waters in his parents’ native land, Lithuania. He spent five years in that Baltic nation, working for the national stock exchange, doing some marketing, advertising, chasing opportunities.
He returned to the U.S. in 2001, still searching for the right business. His wife, Laura Lisauskas, took a job at a San Diego architecture firm and through her, he met an architect, Van Osten.
Going through a tense period at work, Van Osten was smoking more than usual. He was thinking about tobacco waste when he received an unusual piece of mail: a wedding invitation made of biodegradable paper embedded with seeds.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you could flick your cigarette butt and a plant would grow?” he asked his friend.
Lisauskas was intrigued. Tapping his global network, he had contacts at the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland look into suitable seeds. In 2010, the partners brought their idea to a manufacturer of cigarette filters. The response was lukewarm. The seeds seemed gimmicky, they were told, and might even present a choking hazard.
“If you can come up with a biodegradable filter,” they were told, “that’s all we need as long as it’s on a par with what we already have.”
In fact, the world’s largest cigarette manufacturers had already devoted years to the quest for eco-friendly filters. In the 1990s, Japan Tobacco looked into a faster-decomposing cigarette filter. RJR Reynolds was also experimenting with all-natural filters. There was also a British team that filed a patent application for a biodegradable filter in 2010.
By contrast, Greenbutts was a small start-up. Its first laboratory was Van Osten’s kitchen. “We broke about 10 blenders trying to see if different fibers would blend together,” Lisauskas said.
Slowly, the company grew. Raising $800,000 from friends and family, they acquired a technical advisor, Mervyn Witherspoon, a former executive with the world’s largest cigarette filter manufacturer. They hired experts at England’s Nonwoven Innovation & Research Institute to evaluate fibers with sufficient porosity and thickness.
They obtained patents in the U.K. in 2016, and in the U.S. in 2018. They were ready for the industry, even if the industry wasn’t ready for them.
“They looked at it as a novelty,” Lisauskas said.
These huge and hugely profitable corporations were reluctant to change their intricate and exacting manufacturing processes. Machines churn out filtered cigarettes at a rate of 15,000 a minute. Synthetic fibers like cellulose acetate are relatively inexpensive and easier than plant-based substitutes to manufacture in uniform lots.
Big Tobacco felt no urgency, no reason to change. Until late last year, when the European Union passed a law phasing out most cellulose acetate filters by 2030.
“They were in full panic mode,” Lisauskas said. “Our phone started ringing off the hook in December.”
The filter problem
While tobacco has been smoked for centuries, filters were only introduced in the 1950s, after smoking was linked to certain types of cancer.
For years, researchers hoped that filters could deliver a healthier cigarette, and high-powered talent from Dow Chemical, Dupont, Eastman Kodak, Celanese and Olin Chemical experimented with designs and materials. The “filter problem” was the subject of experiments, academic papers, even presentations to the annual Tobacco Chemists Research Conference.
Nothing worked. Researchers were butting their heads against an unsolvable problem, economic historian Bradford Harris concluded in a 2011 paper for Tobacco Control, a medical journal.
“They had confronted an engineering contradiction: to design a cigarette filter that would appreciably reduce the health hazards imposed by smoking (caused by tar, nicotine and gases) while preserving the taste and ‘satisfaction’ that smokers craved (provided by tar, nicotine and gases),” Harris wrote.
While the standard filter, stuffed with cheap and malleable cellulose acetate, did catch some toxins, it provided the illusion of healthier smoking rather than the reality.
Harris cited the 2010 conclusion of a study conducted by U.S. and Japanese scientists: “The shift from nonfilter to filter cigarettes appears to have merely altered the most frequent type of lung cancer, from squamous cell carcinoma to adenocarcinoma.”
“The filter is really a fraud,” said Dr. Thomas Novotny. “It’s simply a marketing tool.”
Novotny, professor emeritus of epidemeology and biostatistics at San Diego State University, agrees with Greenbutts’ founders that trashed cigarette filters present a real problem.
“Butts are an insult to our beaches and our tourist industry,” he said. “And they’re a public nuisance.”
Still, he would not support a switch to biodegradable filters. He believes that might encourage even more litter — it’ll break down, so what’s the harm? — and even green filters would contain toxic residues that could leach into soil or water.
“I firmly believe that banning the sale of filtered cigarettes at the local level or the state level is really the solution,” he said.
That’s the proposal of SB 424, a bill now being considered by the California legislature. If passed, it would prohibit cigarettes with filters made of “any material, including cellulose acetate, any other fibrous plastic material, or any organic or biodegradable material.”
In other words, Greenbutts would be outlawed.
Butts on beaches
Since retiring from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department six years ago, Mark O’Connor has enjoyed long walks on the beach. Roaming from Moonlight Beach to Swami’s, he can always count on the sight of surf, the smell of salt air and the outrage of litter.
“That’s the number one thing we pick up on our beach clean-ups,” O’Connor said, “cigarette butts.”
A Surfrider Foundation member, O’Connor is eager to get rid of all filtered cigarettes. Still, he’s been engaged in a dialogue with his fellow Encinitas resident, Tadas Lisauskas.
“I’m not sure that Tadas’ Greenbutts is the alternative or not,” O’Connor said. Still, he recently met with Lisauskas to talk over lunch, then continued the conversation online.
“I know one thing that bothers a lot of people, including me, is the biodegradable filter will still contain the toxins from smoking,” O’Connor wrote in an email. “Those toxins will still leach out into the ocean.”
The identical problem, Lisauskas responded, “would hold true for a filterless cigarette unless it is smoked down to the very end — which is never done and literally impossible. The bit of tobacco at the end which would be tossed out would contain the same chemicals found in any filter after being smoked.
“The difference is that our filter would degrade so that wildlife would not eat it by accident thinking it was food like an acetate filter.”
Another potential way to keep butts off the beach: legislation. At San Diego State, Dr. Novotny’s students have been comparing trash found on city and county beaches, where smoking is banned, to trash found on state beaches, where it is allowed. This study is still underway and the professor is eager to see the results.
“The students,” Novotny said, “are attempting to show if these policies make a difference.”
Are laws the answer? Or is it better to guard against scofflaw smokers, flicking their butts in defiance of ordinances?
“The problem is not going to go away by wishing it away,” Lisauskas said. “You have to deal with reality.”
O’Connor is still not sure that Greenbutts is the solution. To him, though, the problem is clear.
“Surfrider is not taking a stance on smoking — this is America and you can do what you want to do,” he said. “But I’d love to have one less thing to pick up the beach.”