The new EU Single-Use Plastics Directive requires cigarette manufacturers to assume greater responsibility for the environmental impact of their products.
By Stefanie Rossel
During a recent holiday, I had plenty of opportunity to watch the phenomenon: smokers discarding their cigarette butts on the ski slope or throwing them out of car windows while they were stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway. Butt littering is a bad habit, and it’s a common one as well. Studies quoted by the Truth Initiative, a U.S. not-for-profit tobacco control organization, found that 75 percent of smokers dispose of their cigarettes in the environment. Smokers are estimated to litter as many as 65 percent of their cigarette butts. Awareness continues to be low: In a survey by Keep America Beautiful, 77 percent of respondents said that they didn’t think of cigarette butts as litter.
The effect on the environment, however, is devastating. According to the Truth Initiative, cigarette butts are the most littered item on earth. Since the 1980s, they have consistently made up 30 percent to 40 percent of all items collected in annual international coastal and urban cleanups, amounting to an estimated 4.5 trillion cigarettes annually being discarded worldwide. For those who find this figure too abstract, in the southern part of Great Britain alone, cigarette butts discarded as street litter amount to 1,710 tons of waste per year—enough to fill seven Olympic-size swimming pools, according to calculations by British online vape shop Vapourcore.com.
Around 98 percent of cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate (CA), a polymer that degrades in the environment very slowly. The time it takes a CA cigarette filter to disintegrate ranges from 18 months to 10 years, depending on the conditions of the environment in which it has been discarded. In addition, used cigarette filters are full of toxins, such as nicotine, formaldehyde, arsenic and ammonia, which can leach into the ground and harm living organisms that come into contact with them.
EU to combat plastics litter
Cigarette butts are also among the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and in their seas. Together, these products constitute 70 percent of all marine litter items. In an effort to fight marine pollution, the European Commission in May 2018 proposed rules, the so-called Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive, which will ban single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery, straws and cotton bud sticks made of plastic, as well as oxo-biodegradable plastics—i.e., plastics made of petroleum-based polymers that contain additives that accelerate their degradation when exposed to heat and/or light—food containers and expanded polystyrene cups beginning in 2021.
With regard to tobacco, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) proposed consumption reduction targets of tobacco product filters of 50 percent by 2025 and of 80 percent by 2030 in the original draft directive. Following several so-called Trilogue meetings—negotiations in the EU legislative process carried out within the framework of a conciliation committee—the Council of the EU and the European Parliament in December 2018 reached a provisional agreement that puts aside the MEPs’ proposal for consumption reduction targets.
Somewhat vaguely, the provisional agreement states that “the huge environmental impact caused by post-consumption waste of tobacco products with filters, discarded directly into the environment, needs to be reduced. Innovation and product development are expected to provide viable alternatives to filters containing plastic, and this development needs to be accelerated.” Through the introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR), a reinforced application of the “polluter pays” principle, the provisional agreement seeks to further encourage innovation leading to the development of sustainable alternatives to tobacco product filters containing plastic. The SUP Directive was expected to be formally adopted in its current form at Tobacco Reporter’s press time in late March 2019.
“The directive will require producers to cover the costs of consumer awareness-raising measures and EPR schemes tackling the cleanup of litter and its subsequent transport and treatment, the costs of data gathering and reporting, and the costs of collection of waste of tobacco filters discarded in public collection systems,” explains Giovanni Carucci, vice president of EU affairs at British American Tobacco (BAT). “The deadline for EU member states to set up EPR systems is [Jan. 5, 2023].”
In particular, the obligation for member states to implement EPR schemes for tobacco filters containing plastic by 2023 is a precedent, he points out. “As yet there is no available guidance for member states as to how such EPR schemes should be implemented. Apart from a few local schemes, this is something that has never been carried out on this scale before for filters as for the other affected products. At the same time, it’s important to make sure the resulting schemes are efficient and effective and avoid unnecessary complexity.” He adds: “We believe the solution to this will be dialogue and cooperation including other affected industries, and we are open to collaborating and sharing information and expertise about our products to find the best way forward.”
BAT agrees that companies should minimize their environmental impact and is committed to reducing its environmental impact across the supply chain and operations, according to Carucci. Before the SUP Directive, BAT had long been engaged in diverse projects and initiatives to prevent consumers from littering cigarette butts. “We believe consumer awareness is absolutely critical to solving the problem of butt littering, so we focused on creative projects designed to reach adult smokers,” says Carucci. “For example, in Belgium we worked together with the public authorities to contribute to a voluntary fund designed to support prevention awareness. In other countries, such as Austria, Germany, [the] Czech [Republic] and Switzerland, we distributed thousands of portable, sealable ashtrays as part of consumer education campaigns. These sorts of initiatives are also seen outside of the EU, for example in New Zealand where we contributed to a campaign that provides free purpose-designed cigarette butt bins to member councils and businesses and support to help councils and business associations educate smokers, making them more conscious of their littering and highlighting alternatives. These are just a few examples of the kinds of initiatives which we believe help mitigate the impact of our products.”
In the EU, cigarette manufacturers will have to go one step further: The SUP Directive mandates that, by the second quarter of 2021, tobacco companies put labeling on cigarette packs informing about the negative impacts of cigarettes with plastic filters thrown in the street. The labeling aspects of the proposal need to be in line with already existing tobacco labeling requirements stipulated by the revised Tobacco Products Directive (TPD2). Manufacturers are keen that regulators ensure there is no conflict with existing rules in the TPD2. “The Single-Use Plastics Directive states in Article 7(3) that the provisions of that article concerning tobacco products are in addition to those laid down in TPD2. Although the final compromise text of this legislation was published in January, we are still awaiting further details on the exact requirements on labeling. This will come in the form of secondary legislation—an implementing act—which could take some time to materialize. Until then, we can’t anticipate what such a conflict might look like. Therefore, we encourage legislators to consider the current design of products so that manufacturers can best apply them in a manner that does not conflict with existing legislation.”
For cigarette manufacturers, the cost involved from the measures mandated by the new directive remain unpredictable at this point. “Until secondary legislation materializes, it is not possible to know what additional costs this will add,” says Carucci. “However, we hope that any related costs will be efficient and proportionate.”
Searching for alternatives
While raising awareness among consumers certainly is a challenge, finding the innovative, environmentally friendly alternative to CA cigarette filters as stipulated by the directive might be an even tougher nut to crack. And it’s not just the filter material alone. Carucci says that his company’s current research shows that some constituents of its filters, such as CA derived from wood pulp, can degrade over a month to a three-year time period. “However, for other constituents in our filters, for example polymers or glues, research is inconclusive and requires further testing.”
Filters are an important part of the cigarette because they help comply with legally mandated maximum emission levels of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide set out by the TPD2, Carucci emphasizes. “This is an essential quality to maintain when considering whether there are alternative materials that could serve the same purpose while taking environmental factors more closely into account,” he says. “At present, there are no alternatives that have been developed that will meet prescribed emission standards in various jurisdictions, while not increasing consumer exposure to certain other priority toxicants. Just to give one example, we’ve partnered with manufacturers developing these types of materials, as in 2014 when we partnered with Green Butts to evaluate some of their materials as potential filter materials. However, when we measured the smoke toxicants of the resulting filters compared to a control product, the majority of toxicants were higher than a cigarette with a standard filter. That’s why cellulose acetate remains, for the moment, as the benchmark. However, we will certainly keep up our efforts to research new materials, and we are open to new partnerships that could offer a solution.”
Solutions in the pipeline
Innovation in the filter and filter tow sectors offers some hope. With consumers becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, manufacturers of cigarette filters and filter tow have been developing alternatives with better biodegradability than the commonly used CA filter. Many of them have long been successfully used in cigarette products.
“Ever since I joined the industry in 2003, we have been running projects, both internally and with customers, to identify more biodegradable alternatives to cellulose acetate tow,” says Patrick Meredith, strategy and business development director at Essentra, a U.K. solutions provider for special filters and scientific services. “Some of the products introduced as a result of this work, such as our own Infused and BiTech filters, do bring performance closer to that of cellulose acetate filters. These may not provide identical performance to cellulose acetate over the full range of filter parameters—e.g., filtration, firmness, hot collapse, sensory and visual appearance—but they can certainly provide a base from which to develop solutions to meet any legislation that is enacted.”
Essentra has a range of solutions in its portfolio, including the Ochre filter, which is manufactured from unbleached paper, uses no chemical adhesives to bond the fibers and degrades three times faster than industry standard CA filters. At the same time, it retains higher levels of tar and nicotine compared to mono-acetate filters while it can provide a closer taste to acetate when the company’s Infused technology is applied, according to Essentra.
Next to “white” dual rod products with enhanced decomposition abilities, Essentra’s range also contains the BiTech filter, a single-segment filter that combines acetate tow with paper or other nonwoven materials and provides better filtration efficiency and greater degradability than a standard mono-acetate filter. Dependent on the raw materials selected, it also features better degradability than commonly used filters, according to the company.
“The latter two products incorporate a combination of cellulose acetate and paper, so adjusting the particular materials and their ratios should allow increased degradability to be achieved,” says Meredith. “We also have our Infused product whereby a liquid additive is applied to a paper filter, i.e., the Ochre filter, to bring the taste closer to that of a cellulose acetate filter.”
Essentra’s most recent innovation in terms of biodegradability is a hemp filter. “The hemp crop used to produce the hemp fiber source is grown without pesticides and irrigation for both seed and straw, which ensures economic stability and sustainability,” says Meredith.
Since 2014, the company also has a plugwrap material on offer that disperses in water at least three times faster than standard materials. “We have worked with a number of customers incorporating this plugwrap into our filter rods,” Meredith explains. “The plugwrap gives us an excellent tool to incorporate into the filter as part of a more degradable ‘total’ solution.”
Improving the availability of biodegradable filter solutions is essential, as regulation will not remain limited to the EU, Meredith notes. “Many other markets either have or are already looking to introduce legislation around degradability and littering of cigarette butts or are watching what happens in Europe with a view to adopting similar legislation. To meet these extended requirements [we] will need transformation across the entire industry.”
Best of both worlds
Progress has also been made with regard to the raw material used for filter production. In June 2018, Rhodia Acetow, a leading manufacturer of cellulose acetate tow, introduced DE-Tow, a fast biodegradable CA filter tow. “DE-Tow offers the tremendous advantage to meet the needs of environmental care regarding products that would be littered in nature; while traditional cellulose acetate in cigarette filters takes several years to decompose, DE-Tow biodegrades in less than six months,” says CEO Philippe Rosier. “Therefore, this innovation offers a global solution to the cigarette butt problem. We consider DE-Tow as a viable alternative to regular cigarette filter tow as referred to in the Single-Use Plastics Directive. Our product also contributes to the EU member states’ transition to a circular economy by generating a waste which, after collection, can be used for the production of biogas, composted, recycled or valorized energetically.”
Rhodia has been working on alternatives to current filters for about a decade. “Thanks to those efforts, with DE-Tow, we have been able to commercialize a biodegradable new generation of cellulose acetate filter tow,” says Rosier. “Therefore, the upcoming regulation is rather rewarding for our work and strengthens our determination to put the environment at the core of our R&D efforts.”
Upon its launch, the product’s biodegradability had already been certified in water, wastewater, and home and industrial compost. In December 2018, it received the certification of biodegradation in soil. Tests performed by external homologated laboratories have demonstrated the product’s biodegradability in marine water, according to Rhoda. “We expect official certification this year,” says Rosier.
DE-Tow can be used for the production of biodegradable cigarette filters through the same manufacturing process used for standard filters, Rosier explains. “There is no structural impact for cigarette manufacturers. With DE-Tow, cigarette manufacturers can replicate any type of filter for the simple reason that our product is made from cellulose acetate. Its main difference compared to regular cellulose acetate filter tow used for cigarette filters is its fast and certified biodegradability. It is also important to mention that DE-Tow is TiO2 free and that its classic filter tow performances, such as rod maker processability, smoke filtration, and filter design and quality, are equivalent to standard filter tow. DE-Tow is the filter material of choice not only for cigarettes but also for heat-not-burn sticks.”
Cellulose acetate has been used in the production of cigarette filters since the 1950s.
In Europe, more than 99 percent of the cigarettes currently sold are made with cellulose acetate-based filters, Rosier estimates. Rhodia Acetow is convinced that the development of sustainable alternatives to current cigarette filters has to leverage these key filtration performances of cellulose acetate. According to Rosier, customers are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of tobacco products. “Consequently, we have been and are working closely with many cigarette manufacturers to develop, test and qualify innovative solutions respectful of the environment, such as DE-Tow. The first cigarettes with DE-Tow are now launched on the market. This synergy between our companies will be successful and meet both market expectations and environmental needs.”