• April 18, 2024

Green Pact

 Green Pact

Greenbutts’ product is sold in bulk or as ready-made rods of filters and filter tips. Photo: Greenbutts

Greenbutts’ product is sold in bulk or as ready-made rods of filters and filter tips. Photo: Greenbutts

Filtrona partners with Greenbutts to expand its range of sustainable filter offerings.

By Stefanie Rossel

Discarded cigarette butts are a major source of plastic pollution. Of the more than 5 trillion cigarettes produced globally per year, an estimated 4.5 trillion end up in the environment, with 40 percent making their way into our oceans and waterways. Smokers often are unaware that the products will not decompose. While most of a cigarette’s components disintegrate quickly when disposed of, the filter will not. Around 98 percent of cigarette filters consist of cellulose acetate (CA), a polymer that is very slow to degrade in the environment. Depending on the environmental conditions, a CA cigarette filter can take up to 14 years to degrade.

While littering is illegal in many jurisdictions, the potential penalties, which can include fines, cleanup, community service or imprisonment, are insufficient to deter many consumers.

By banning single-use plastics, such as disposable plastic cutlery, fast food packaging or cups, from July 2021, the European Union became a forerunner in the fight against marine litter and plastic pollution with its Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD). While the legislation does not prohibit CA cigarette filters, it has established extended producer responsibility schemes (EPR) requiring tobacco companies to tackle the single-use plastic pollution generated by the filters they put on the market.

Although a February 2023 report by Rethink Plastic Alliance and other NGOs noted significant delays in implementation, the SUPD definitely helped trigger a rethink within the tobacco industry on the sustainability of its products. Experts believe that environmentally friendly filter solutions will be the next big thing in the industry, and they may be right.

In February 2022, the United Nations Environment Programme partnered with the Secretariat of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to raise awareness and drive action on the environmental and human health impacts of microplastics in cigarette filters, which it designated as a form of single-use plastic. One month later, the U.N. Environmental Assembly adopted a resolution to draft a legally binding U.N. treaty on plastic pollution, which addresses the full life cycle of plastic, from production to product design to waste management. Public health organizations around the world argue that the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the plastics treaty, the fourth session of which will be held this April, must consider a ban or strict regulation of all single-use plastics as a necessary measure to reduce pollution.

Joining Forces

Robert Pye

To meet the growing demand for biodegradable filters, Singapore-based specialty filter manufacturer Filtrona in October 2023 announced a partnership with Greenbutts of California. Greenbutts has developed a patented substrate and filters that are made of all-natural, food-grade fibers, such as abaca fiber, cotton flock and industrial hemp as well as a starch-based binder, which debuted on the market in 2019. The product is sold in bulk or as ready-made rods of filters and filter tips.

“Filtrona’s collaboration with Greenbutts strengthens our support for our customers in helping them shift away from CA to more sustainable materials,” says Filtrona CEO Robert Pye. “As a major supplier to this industry, we are committed to help companies move into more sustainable solutions while ensuring they get the supply. Filtrona will continue to invest in our equipment and technology as we continue our research in alternative materials. Together with our partners and suppliers, we are ready to help our customers make the transition to plastic-free filter solutions. We have expanded our portfolio by adding Greenbutts filters to our ECO Range portfolio, thus providing a wider array of tailor-made solutions to address specific customer requirements in certain territories/markets.”

According to Pye, Filtrona alone can currently not meet the volumes required for sustainable filter conversion. “Filtrona currently works with various suppliers to select the most appropriate materials to create sustainable filter solutions that meet the unique requirements of our customers. We are constantly scouting the market for new, innovative materials. To give our customers wider options, we will offer Greenbutts filters that can be customized according to various product specifications.”

Under the joint development agreement, Filtrona will lease a machine from Greenbutts to produce biodegradable filters using proprietary technology. The company aimed to have the machine at its site in Greensboro, North Carolina, USA, by the end of February and begin production shortly thereafter.

The U.S. has been chosen as a location because the state of New York recently reintroduced the Tobacco Product Waste Reduction Act to the State Senate. The act would prohibit the sale of cigarettes using single-use filters as well as ban the sale of single-use electronic cigarettes. “With New York having proposed a law that would ban the sale of single-use filtered cigarettes and single-use e-cigarettes, we believe North America will eventually follow the EU in implementing the SUPD and EPR in the future,” Pye says. “We want to be ahead of the curve while expanding our capabilities to make our ECO Range available globally.”

Greenbutts has developed a patented substrate made of all-natural, food grade fibers. Photo: Greenbutts

Significant Market Potential

For the time being, biodegradable filters remain more expensive than CA varieties, but this may change as output increases. “Globally, consumers and regulators are pushing for more environmentally sustainable solutions and biodegradable products,” says Pye.

“Consumers are increasingly seeking sustainable products while tobacco companies want to be compliant to regulations by reducing the use of single-use plastics and be the first to market sustainable, plastic-free products. But having said that, pricing is still an important factor and will be affected by the scale of production. As the production of biodegradable products grows, we expect prices to become more competitive.”

Beyond the U.S. and Europe, Pye sees potential for environmentally friendly filter solutions in Indonesia, where Filtrona is already supporting the kretek cigarette market with its ECO Range of filter solutions. He also anticipates increasing demand for sustainable filters for heated-tobacco products (HTPs). “We offer a range of patented sustainable HTP filter solutions that has a carbon footprint that is four times lower when compared with a similar offering made with CA, in line with our commitment to develop more renewable, degradable and sustainable products,” says Pye. “We see it as a logical next step for the HTP category to evolve as the market continues to grow rapidly. Filtrona is also at the forefront of revolutionizing the botanicals sector with our sustainable and compliant ECO Range.”