French cities solutions for cigarette butts

2 November 2021

Every day, millions of cigarettes and tobacco leftovers are thrown away into the environment. When smoking, most of a cigarette disintegrates, although what is left – mostly plastic and toxic chemicals – is far from biodegradable and still gets absorbed by the environment. 

It’s known that a tiny cigarette entails a noticeably significant pollution potential. However, some cities joined the opportunity for a second – and a much healthier – life of tobacco: it turns out cigarette butts can be recycled, so pollution can be avoided.  

Forgotten on the streets 

Image credit: Toulouse City Council

“All started with citizens picking up cigarette butts and telling the mayor there were too many on the street. This was three years ago,” says Carine Fronzes, Director of Operational Proximity Coordination within the Delegate General Directorate of Public Spaces at Toulouse Metropole 

The French city realised people were aware of the pollution caused by cigarettes butts, “so we decided to act.” The first action was simple: to increase the number of ashtrays all over the public spaces in the city, and later, replace the bins for extinguishers. However, the big plan that started in 2019 had to stop during the pandemic. Now, it’s coming back. 

To fight against tobacco waste, Toulouse increased the availability of information about the issue with urban display of posters and social media strategies for good behaviour and to also raise awareness.

In addition, the city supports the actions led by citizens like the world cleanup day, when groups are organised to collect rubbish from city streets, rivers and lakes. “We support citizens participatory cleaning actions. We help them with material,” explains Fronzes. 

Et voilà: a second life 

More than 1.5 million cigarettes were recycled in another French city, Bordeaux, which constitutes 390 kilogrammes of waste. “That’s about 778,600 m3 of water preserved from pollution,” explains Alain Visine, Head of Service at Common Means Service of the Management of Public Spaces at Bordeaux City Council. Also, some other advantages achieved by recycling rather than incineration are 4.27 MWh saved and 895.36 Kg of CO2 not emitted. 

All of this has been possible thanks to the partnership between the city council and Mego, which installs ashtrays and later collects the butts for recycling. Between 60,000 and 200,000 butts are collected and have a second life every year. 

Visine says they aimed to “provide the most virtuous recycling solution possible”. 

Image credit: Toulouse City Council

In Toulouse, they are not that confident. They “found an association that used to collect the butts and recycle them. But it’s not efficient. It’s not very developed at the moment. There are experiences in France, but the volume of cigarettes is not enough. And you need a lot of water.” An experience with the businesses associations was led instead to increase the cleaning of the streets. 

Smoke does not go away 

From Bordeaux council, they aim to strengthen communication and awareness among fellow citizens on the importance of ashtrays, the environmental issues linked to pollution and the recycling of cigarette butts and to participate in respecting their living environment.  

The initiative started in 2020, along with awareness campaigns of the environmental issues of cigarette butt recycling and the provision of a new model of an ashtray on the streets. This year, an event took place to raise awareness on the environmental issue of cigarette butts discarded in the Garonne river. Visine ensures one of the objectives is to reduce waste and thus preserve public space, such as the river, from any pollution linked to cigarette butts. 

“Cigarettes are very little rubbish but one of the most pollutant,” explains Fronzes from Toulouse Metropole. “We’re disgusted by dog poo, but it’s not a pollutant.” So, it’s fundamental to raise awareness and make people think about the environment.

Portable ashtray. Image credit: Toulouse City Council

She explains they partnered with the small shops for little portable pockets so smokers can keep their rubbish without contributing to pollution. There is still room for improvement since it is plastic, says Fronzes, “so it’ll be made in another material.”  

Future actions against smoking

“By dint of communicating and raising awareness on this subject, citizens are starting to become aware of it, but it remains a daily struggle to inform and convince users,” says Visine. 

Toulouse used to implement free tobacco areas around the city. “We plan to do it again,” Fronzes adds. However, national law will contribute to this struggle: the tobacco enterprises will be taxed higher, and that money will be distributed between organisations and city councils that take action against cigarettes. Toulouse and Bordeaux are among them. 

It was not long ago when smoking used to be permitted inside buildings, something that may be currently unthinkable. “I hope in a few years we will think OMG, a few years ago we used to throw cigarettes on the floor”, says Fronzes. 


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer