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“We can win the war on plastic and cigarette butts”

How an innovative startup recycles cigarette butts into funky furniture

When we think about the problem of plastics in the environment, we often overlook one of the most aggressive polluters: cigarette butts.

Yes, they’re small, but they are a big problem. Cigarette butts do not biodegrade and are almost impossible to recycle. The residues of tar and nicotine make them highly toxic. Research shows that in South Africa alone, 15bn butts make their way into the environment every year! This makes them the number one most collected item in cleanups.

But no problem is too big for Santie Gouws and Ursula van Eck, the founders and directors of ocean-i. Their mission is to prevent plastic and butts from making their way into the oceans.

While Ursula has a passion for scuba diving, Santie is an avid hiker. They experience the problem of environmental pollution on a daily basis. “On a hiking trip, I saw the enormous pollution in the Bluedowns Canal. That was the moment that I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I decided we must take action here and now”, says Santie. And she means it: she quit her job at an engineering firm to look for “circular solutions” for recycling waste materials. With her skills in cement technology, she now researches how plastics and cigarette butts can be used as a raw material to manufacture concrete prodcuts.

Profit for Purpose

“We decided to create a profitable company that produces high-end, funky outdoor furniture based on recycled materials” says Ursula. “With the profits we sponsor cleanups of the Bluedowns Canal. We collect our own raw material in the cleanups, and we fund the cleanups out of the sales of our furniture. This is our circular model”

And they don’t compromise on quality and style either: they collaborate with big names such as Pieter Mathews for the design of their outdoor furniture.

In their search to find ways to recycle cigarette butts, ocean-i collaborates with CRDC Global, who have developed a mixture that recycles plastic into an additive that is used in the concrete mix. Even plastic that is otherwise "unrecyclable". Together, they found a way to add cigarette butts to this mix. This is the first viable solution for recycling cigarette butts in South Africa – and it’s affordable.

With this innovative concrete mix, ocean-i designed a concrete cigarette butt bin, where smokers can safely deposit their butts. These bins are not only made out of reused cigarette butts, but they also come with a service contract: the collected butts get recycled into new concrete products: circularity at its best!

“The only way we will reach a #ZeroWaste world, is when consumers, NGOs, business and governments collaborate” says Ursula. Santie adds: “We are making a small contribution – but it is a step towards changing the way in which we produce and consume.”

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