Nothing comes from diamonds, but biofuel comes from cigarette butts?

In Italy alone, 14 billion cigarette butts a year are not disposed of correctly. Now they could become energy

Cigarette butts are among the most widespread and polluting waste due to the presence of toxic substances and non-biodegradable plastic. Yet, they could become allies of the environment thanks to recent studies that use them to produce soil for plants and biofuela renewable and sustainable energy source that has so far raised some concerns in the EU.

Considering that over a million tons of cigarette butts are scattered around the world every year, these studies could trigger an important circular economy mechanism.

The Capannori Focus project

One of the most recent and innovative studies on the recycling of cigarette butts to produce biofuel is the project Focus (Filter of Cigarettes reUse Safely)born in Capannori, in the province of Lucca, in 2020.

The project is promoted by the “Enrico Avanzi” Interdepartmental Center of the University of Pisa, and is developed in collaboration with the Municipality of Capannori, the Institute on Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Cnr, the Department of Agricultural, Food and Agro-environmental Sciences and Ascit , the company that manages urban hygiene services in the Lucca area.

Focus plans to collect cigarette butts from various public places, such as parks, streets and squares, and subject them to two possible uses:

– transform cigarette butts into an inert substrate, i.e. a biodegradable base for the cultivation of ornamental plants and shrubs.

To do this, cigarette butts are separated from organic parts, such as tobacco and paper, and then chemically treated to make them suitable for plant growth. The obtained substrate is then used for hydroponic cultivation, a technique that does not require soil, but only water and nutrient solutions. In this way, native plants can be obtained for use in public or private green spaces, contributing to the improvement of the landscape and biodiversity;

– transform cigarette butts into biofuel, through the use of microalgae, plant organisms, capable of producing biomass and oil from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water.

As project coordinator Lorenzo Guglielminetti explains, the microalgae are grown in special reactors, where they are fed with cigarette butts. Thus these plant organisms manage to break down the toxic substances present in cigarette butts, while producing algal biomass which can then be transformed into biofuel through extraction and refining processes. The resulting biofuel can be used to power internal combustion engines, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.

The circular approach to cigarette butt disposal can also raise awareness among citizensthe damage of this type of waste, in a step-by-step process promoted by the administration of Capannori and the mayor, Luca Menesini, who has also decided to join the national campaign “No butts on the ground” launched by Striscia la Notizia.

The Re-cig startup

In Italy, Capannori’s is not the only study that aims to reuse cigarette butts.

In Rovereto, in the province of Trento, there is the startup “Re-cig”: a company authorized in Italy and Europe to collect cigarette butts with collection columns capable of Hold up to 1500 cigarette buttsthe “smoker points”. explains, the filters are then sent to a plant to obtain cellulose acetate, a material that can be used to make various types of plastic products. “The regenerated material is non-toxic and the operation has a environmental impact reduced by 50% compared to other incinerators”, explain the company.

The EU’s doubts about biofuel

Biofuels are divided into three categories, depending on the raw material of origin:

– biofuels from food and fodder crops (the so-called first generation);

– those deriving from waste, residues and derived products (the second generation);

– those deriving from cooking oils and animal fats (the third generation).

Despite the doubts and proclamations, there have been few steps forward to go beyond the first generation. Recent studies, however, may open up a question new frontier on biofuels which, after the great initial enthusiasm, suffered a heavy setback from the EU.

With a detailed 66-page report, on December 13th the Court of Auditors European Union has almost completely rejected biofuels as it already did in 2016.

But let’s go in order. For the period 2014-2020, approx 430 million euros
of European funds to research projects and the promotion of biofuels. Then, however, the first doubts about these fuels emerged and the EU’s choices also changed.

In the last two years, the Union has increased pressure on polluting emissions resulting from transport, in line with the package Fit photo 55 cwhich aims to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030. Which is also an obstacle for biofuels which, despite expectations, have proven also very impactful on the emissions front.

“The benefits of biofuels on the environment are often overestimated” the EU Court of Auditors clearly writes in its report. The (initially) hidden damage of this technology is different, “for example – the Court writes – biofuels deriving from raw materials that require arable land (and therefore potentially involving deforestation) could negatively impact biodiversity, soil and water. This situation inevitably raises ethical questions regarding the order of priority between food and fuel”.

Furthermore, regarding food and fodder crops used for first generation biofuels, the Commission does not have a complete overview of the agricultural areas used for these crops on European territory. This prevents the assessment of the impact of biofuels derived from food crops on the availability of food and raises further doubts.

The critical issues identified by the Court move on two fronts:

– the absence of a long-term perspective; environmental sustainability problems;

– the race to hoard biomass and the high costs of the supply chain, which make biofuels unsustainable even from an economic point of view.

Biofuels in aviation: Saf

However, biofuels remain there best solution to reduce emissions in aviation, a sector where electrification faces many obstacles. In a very detailed report on the topic, Cassa Depositi e Prestiti presents Saf (Sustainable Aviation Fuel) as the only technology available to promote flights with close to zero emissions by 2050 and the only viable answer for long-haul flights.

These are fuels that derive from production waste, used oils and vegetable derivatives, capable of contributing almost 2/3 to the objective thanks to the reduction of CO2 emissions by up to 80% compared to traditional fuels. A fundamental characteristic of SAFs is that, unlike other solutions, they are a “drop-in” solution, meaning they can be used without making any modifications to the aircraft.

The new ReFuelEU Aviation regulation, adopted in 2023, set the required level of sustainable aviation fuels (Saf) – including biofuels – at 6% for 2030, i.e. approximately 2.76 million tonnes of oil equivalent. At the moment, however, potential production capacity in the EU barely reaches a tenth of that figure. The production of SAF is still limited (only 0.1% of total fuels), but in recent times there has been a strong acceleration: only in 2022, the production of sustainable aviation fuels tripled compared to the previous year.

Furthermore, a Lithuanian study could provide important answers to the main doubts raised by the EU Court of Auditors: environmental and economic unsustainability.

The Lithuanian study and the possible turning point

So far we have seen how biofuels represent a cleaner alternative to oil, with a biodegradation time up to four times shorter and non-toxic. Environmental and economic costs have dampened enthusiasm for this solution. Both problems, however, can be solved using the triacetin as an additive according to studies done by
Lithuanian Energy Institute.

This substance is produced artificially, requires the use of many chemicals and the process generates waste and toxic residues.

This is where cigarette filters, or butts, come into play.

“Triacetin is used as plasticizer in the filter of cigarettes, so the butts are full of them,” explains Samy Yousef, lead researcher at the Faculty of Technology at Kaunas University. If it were possible to extract it,, the filters would become a low-cost source of triacetin, without having to produce it again. In one fell swoop the economic and environmental problems would be eliminated.

Concluding reflections

Every year, smokers around the world purchase approximately 6.5 trillion cigarettes. Considering that the average weight of a cigarette butt is 0.2 grams and that more than one million tons of cigarettes are produced every year. According to MareVivo estimates, every year 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are not disposed of properly (14 billion in Italy alone) generating approximately 770 million kilos of toxic waste.

Despite the partial failure recorded so far by biofuels, there are nnew hopes for this technology.

Especially because so far we have focused on the pyrolysis of the filter, a process that requires pre-treatment of the butt to separate the filters from the other components (residual tobacco and paper). Since it is a toxic waste, this procedure has high economic costs.

In their experiments, however, the Lithuanian researchers have treated the butts as a whole managing to convert the butts into coal, gas and oil which is rich in triacetin, after a pyrolysis treatment at 750 °C.

Not only. In this way you can give new life also for the other components of the butt: Due to its porous and calcium-rich structure, the mined coal is suitable for fertilizer production, wastewater treatment as an absorbent and for energy storage, while the gaseous products generated in the process can be used to produce electricity and power the conversion plants that generate steam and hot water.

The path to solving the many critical issues of biofuels and, at the same time, removing millions of cigarette butts from the environment is clear. Now it is better to invest in research.