you can do it, put yo' [butt] into it


I work, play, eat, sometimes sleep, and occasionally poo outdoors, and wherever I go, whether it's on a busy city street or in the most remote of Sierra wilderness, I am guaranteed to see at least a handful of cigarette butts.

I see them sitting on sidewalks, in gutters, on hiking trails, all over parking lots, in the nooks of trees, in National Forest, at dog parks and, once, in a discarded beer can inside a sneaker on an otherwise pristine and remote river beach (thanks for consolidating, buddy). Just yesterday, on a whim, I picked up about 20 from a small pile of debris next to a storm drain at my office. Had I more time, I would have dug out the other 40 or so.

They are the most common piece of litter in the United States and the world, and have annually topped the Ocean Conservancy's list of most frequently collected trash in the International Coastal Cleanup. Last year, ICC volunteers picked up 2,189,252 butts, making up 21% of all of the litter found on the world's shores. One study estimated that around 4.5 trillion cigarette butts per year are discarded somewhere other than a trash can and enter the environment.

Apparently, the common belief among smokers is that their butts are somehow biodegradable, or perhaps that the impact of their waste is minimal. In truth, cigarette butts are to the health of the environment as the rest of the cigarette is to the health of a smoker. The butts hold the cellulose acetate filters of the cigarettes, which supposedly protect the smoker from the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals the cigarettes release when they burn; chemicals like Arsenic, Formaldehyde, Tar, Cadmium, Hydrogen Cyanide, and more than 4000 others. These filters collect this cornucopia of crap from what smoke passes through the butt, and store it up until it's washed out by the next rainstorm, processed in a baby bird's stomach, or absorbed through the gills of a fish. According to a study by (the unfortunately named) Slaughter et al, the chemicals found in one cigarette butt can kill half the fish in a 1-liter tank of water in less than a day.

Clearly, we need to do more work to reduce not only the number of cigarettes people smoke, but also the vast number that they flick into the forest. But rather than sending them all to a landfill to leach and not-degrade, can't we find another use for them?

Apparently, we can, and in an ironically topical way.

A team of crazy chemists at the School of Energy and Power Engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University took it upon themselves to soak a bunch of cigarette butts in hydrochloric acid (the same stuff found in your stomach), and apply the resulting solution to some industrial-grade steel, the kind used in underwater pipes. When treated, the steel developed a greater resistance to corrosion--up to 95% greater--than that of steel left untreated.

This means that underwater pipes, such as those broken ones spewing oil from a hole in the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico, can be treated with a solution derived from cigarette butts and stomach acid to increase their strength and decrease the likelihood of catastrophic failure.

In this weird twist of science and engineering, the same butts that pollute our oceans, poison our waters, and kill our fish and wildlife can be used to prevent similarly deadly oil spills like the one going on right now.

So don't smoke, but if you absolutely feel compelled to do so, hold on to that butt when you're done. See if you can make it all the way to a trash can, and perhaps some day we'll have special filter recycling stations to collect the materials to fortify our also-recycled steel.



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