Can you compost cigarette butts?

A number of composting advice sites indicate cigarette filters are made from synthetic plastics and do not decompose! We disagree – controlled hot Composting of cigarette butts is viable. Please read on to find out why! 
Whether a material IS or IS NOT compostable (i.e. biodegradable) is a matter of scientific fact. We like to check the science and leave you better informed.  It is rare for us to re-mind our readers our FAQ advice is provided on ‘without guarantee or indemnity’ – but on this occasion, as the topic is going to get people ‘hot under the collar’, a reminder that this is our reading of the science – we are only seeking to help inform your decision.
Searching the literature, we found that cigarette butts (the white filter bit) is made of ‘synthetic cellulose acetate’. That may sound non biodegradable but this is not the case. You can evidence this very quickly – a staggering 4.5 trillion butts are discarded each year (We can’t find a source for this number, but it is used widely on many sites, so let’s assume it is accurate). If these butts are not biodegradable – where are they now? Mass consumption Smoking has been around for 100 years or so. Despite the efforts of our Councils, if they did not decay, our sewers would be blocked and our streets piled high with cigarette butts.  Now for the science proof!
The filters are mainly made from a synthetic polymer called cellulose acetate. All sounds a bit scary, but not really. Acetic Acid (vinegar) is one of nature’s building blocks – life on earth needs it. Cellulose acetate is just lots of vinegar molecules joined together into a chain. Cellulose acetate is a short step away from cellulose (i.e. wood!). Most cigarette butts apparently still use natural cellulose acetate (i.e. tow from the wood pulp http://www.bat.com/group/sites/UK__3MNFEN.nsf/vwPagesWebLive/4572237B0C2D456CC1257314004EF667 ). Even if they do not, synthetic (i.e. man made) cellulose acetate is man’s copy of nature’s science. It is used all around you – wrapped a present with cellotape recently, kept any photographic film (pre digital!) – that’s all cellulose acetate.
How fast cellulose acetate decays is directly related to the composting conditions – and principally the temperature of the heap (Q10 equation). You will often see quotes of 3,10 or 50 years as estimates for cigarette butt decomposition time. This is directly comparable the time it takes to decompose lignin (i.e. wood). Most of these tests are done outdoors (so an average of 10C is the temp for most tests). If you increase the decomposition temperature to 60C, you can divide this number by 32 and you’ll get the time it takes to hot compost it. So 10 years at 10C = 4 months at 60C (Again this is directly comparable to wood in an outdoor heap and wood in an IVC composting plant.
Even if we agree it is biodegradable, surely we do not want cigarette butts in our compost bins – they are full of toxic, carcinogenic tar chemicals the list of additives runs into 600 approved of by FDA for addition to cigarettes. If you really want to see some serious chemical names have a look at Wiki – http://en.wikipedia.org/Wiki/List_of_cigarette_additives. Yes there are carcinogens in butt filters, but don’t forget – burning wood, fire smoke, the original tobacco plant, and much of nature – also has these nasty chemicals.   Someone may have tested every single item and may challenge back, but looking through the list, from our knowledge of composting bacteria, they all look like readily biodegradable organic chemicals (i.e. bacteria food). These chemicals are built up in plants and broken down by bacteria all the time. (Take the logic to the extreme – if the carcinogenic chemicals made in plants were not biodegraded,  then over the millennia they have been made by plants, they would have built up in soils – maybe even to a level that would have made soil toxic to humans?
What about the risk from “TMV – tobacco mosaic virus”. From our reading on the subject, claims are made that small fragments of tobacco carry the virus over from the tobacco leaf into the cigarette and onto the filter.  TMV is known to be resistant to low temperature composting.  However read wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_mosaic_virus. If your heap is hot (60C), the virus is going to outcompeted, die and be eaten by the thermophilic bacteria. If you add in the fact that remote chance TMV survives the burning process at 200C, a small chance a tiny fragment gets into filter and that a tiny fragment is not then eaten by bacteria – TMV from composting butts looks a really low risk.
Only you, as the composter, can make the decision whether to compost your cigarette butts. I do not smoke, but if I did, I’d be more worried about smoking than composting cigarette butts!
So finally – what’s the alternative? Leave them lying around, hope someone cleans them up and takes them to landfill! Then what? Well they will just decompose anaerobically and release methane!
Proper HOT Composting of cigarette butts looks sound!
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