Watch: Cigarette Butts, World's #1 Litter, Recycled as Park Benches

A growing movement targets cigarette waste as a solvable problem.

Cigarette butts are, by some counts, the world’s number one litter problem.

Butts represent the most numerous form of trash that volunteers collect from the world's beaches on the Ocean Conservancy’s cleanup days. More than two million cigarette parts were recently collected in a single year around the world—double the amount of both food containers and beverage containers.

The hard numbers from some other sources are staggering.

New York state, for instance, produces an estimated 1.5 million tons of cigarette butts a year. And butts account for about 13 percent of the litter accumulated on Texas highways, 130 million butts a year.

The problem extends well beyond the gross factor. Cigarette filters are made from wood-based plastic fibers that take generations to fully decompose, says Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of the New Jersey-based recycling company TerraCycle.

And the filters can leach nicotine and tar into the ground or water.

Butts are also often eaten by birds, fish, and other animals, who can choke on them or be hurt from the poisons they contain.

As seen in the video above, TerraCycle is one of a handful of companies that is working to collect and recycle spent butts, by turning them into plastic lumber that can be used for benches, pallets, and other uses.

Another company, EcoTech Displays, is working on a system to recycle butts into insulation, clothing, and even jewelry.

Governments have also increasingly taken note of the problem, by beginning to enforce littering laws against those who toss their butts or imposing extra taxes on cigarettes to help defray the cost of cleanup, from Maine to San Francisco.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

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