One Butt at a Time

The story of Greenbutts and their fight against cigarette butt pollution

By Gabriel Kauachi

After a year abroad in Europe, I began to see things through a clearer, more realistic lens. Throughout our academic careers, Stern has repeatedly reinforced the topic of sustainable business through classes such as Business and Society for students to see the interaction between businesses and communities  from a perspective greater than just money. It is because of this education that I stood in Madrid one night, shifting my attention between the hundreds of cigarettes already littered on the street, and the people currently flicking them in front of me. 

After meeting with Greenbutts’s Chief Strategy Officer Luis Sanches, he explained to me how around 5 trillion cigarettes are manufactured globally every year and unfortunately 60 to 70 percent of their butts become harmful litter for our environment. This crowns cigarette butts as being the most littered single-use plastic in the world and sheds light on the fact that we litter 10 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy solely off cigarette butts. CEO Tadas Lisauskas saw this as a problem and decided to found Greenbutts with hopes to end worldwide cigarette plastic pollution one butt at a time. 

Starting from scratch in a garage with a friend, Lisauskas experimented with many different fibers and materials, trying to create the perfect biodegradable cigarette butt. After years of arduous research and development, he was able to come up with a substrate that was able to join four different natural fibers together effectively. Cigarette filters have always been made with Cellulose Acetate and a plasticizer called triacetin. By being a chemically modified fiber (single-use plastic), the cellulose acetate manufacturing process can be easily controlled with a high degree of reproducibility and repeatability, making it a very reliable filtration media and low-cost raw material. The issue arises when it comes to biodegradability. Normal cigarette butts can take anywhere from 18 months to 15 years to degrade, and due to their littered volume, are classified as the world’s number one plastic polluter. Greenbutts seeks to tackle this ever-present monster by instituting their quickly biodegradable, water dispersing, plant-based filter butts into the ends of as many cigarettes as possible. 

So how do these butts work? To be considered biodegradable, the ISO (International Organization of Standardization), defines that more than 90 percent of the mass of your fibers must biodegrade and decompose within a period of 2 years. Greenbutts on the other hand can provide complete, 100-percent biodegradation and decomposition of their cigarette butt fibers in a span of only 60 days. To achieve this, they make their substrate water dispersible. This means, when immersed in water, the butt will swiftly  come apart, dissolving into the water. This allows microorganisms to do their job in a much faster timeline and have a completely decomposed and biodegraded butt far quicker than normal cigarette butts. 

While it may be true that all this new technology is groundbreaking for the business of sustainability, it comes with its fair share of challenges. One of these is the natural variability, present in every agricultural produce. Since Greenbutts filters are completely made from natural materials, it is highly dependent on climate, weather, and good agricultural practices. The company’s supply chain organization and product design aim to compensate “nature produced variability” while ensuring optimal and high standard levels of filtration efficiency in every manufacturing batch year after year. 

Greenbutts adopts a business-to-business model. On one hand, they pride themselves in being able to sell their patented substrate so that any business who wishes to manufacture their own biodegradable cigarette filters can do so. The substrate is sold in large bobbins and later converted into filters by cigarette manufacturers that have in-house filter making manufacturing capability. On the other hand, they also sell the pre-made filters to other manufacturing clients, which have no in-house filter manufacturing capability so that they can attach the Greenbutts filters to their tobacco products or brand them as accessories to be used in make-your-own (MYO cigarettes), a practice that is widely common here in Europe. 

The transition from SUPs (Single-Use Plastics) to a fully biodegradable alternative, may open a door for the industry to communicate with consumers to explain the change, the reasons for the change and the positive impact of the change. Of course, this matter must be approved and authorized by regulators, which for years have limited, to not say eliminated, all the channels for the tobacco manufactures to talk directly to their consumers.

So, what are the steps that need to be taken to knock down the number one most littered plastic in the world? First the industry must be willing to drive these changes. As one might imagine, these major tobacco companies that produce cigarette sticks in the billions per year will face challenges in their manufacturing process and operations, but they must be willing to embrace this challenge as a unique opportunity. Greenbutts is assisting companies with the transition process. By using Greenbutts biodegradable filters, companies will face more achievable ESG goals, due to their alignment of sustainability practices, targets, and metrics that allow them to demonstrate to shareholders faster and more sustainable progress towards company goals. Government and regulations will eventually create clear timelines, targets, and paired with proper law enforcement will ensure the protection of the planet, its people, and businesses overall. 

It’s like putting a bandaid on a really really deep cut, was what I told Luis when speaking about government sustainability efforts. While using paper straws, cutlery, and bags helps towards positive conservation efforts, all the waste combined of these different plastics doesn’t even come close to the sheer size of the waste from cigarette butts. Through government enforcement, companies can be motivated to take the steps to change and move closer and closer to a more sustainable future. 

When asked about the business side of Greenbutts, Luis mentioned to me that while there are other competitors in the market and their solutions have been available for decades in some cases, they do not offer the sensory performance expected by demanding consumers. Having said this though, he did speak on the fact that in its business model, Greenbutts expects to gain a considerable market share in key strategic markets. In Europe alone, where regulation towards single use plastics is more aggressive, the size of the cigarette market is that of around 800 billion sticks produced per year (14% of the global market). Other markets, such as the United States, have been and will eventually match the Europeans’ push for regulations. Consumers are conscious and concerned about the environment and its sustainability more now than ever. In recent research, they have demonstrated the willingness to compromise with price, appearance, and even sensory characteristics if the goal is to save the planet.  

Greenbutts now is finalizing its financial round. The new capital will go towards continuing enhancement of supply chain, production, and research and development. So far, Greenbutts as a company and with their product has demonstrated scalability, consistency, and long-term viability to investors and the public. Finally, it is important to mention that the Greenbutts patented substrate can be used for many different industries such as aerospace, automobile, and oil and are looking to branch out into those sectors as soon as economically possible in hopes of continuing the start of the sustainable revolution. 

At the end of the day, plastic is not entirely bad, it is the extreme and wasteful misuse of it that has damaged our world so heavily, the main culprit being single-use plastics. Like Chief Strategy Officer Luis Sanches mentioned, “the key and most important players for this change are ‘we’ the consumers.” It is up to us to start making more mindful choices not only when smoking cigarettes, but also when going about our daily lives. We must start making better and smarter choices in every purchase, seeing the world with more sustainable eyes to even continue to have a world our eyes can see in the future. Knowing that we have a role to play, we are responsible to ensure a sustainable legacy and a greener planet to live for us and for future generations. So, the next time you might find yourself looking down at a pile of littered cigarettes, take a second to think about how your actions may be impacting the state of our planet and the future of humanity. 

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