Cigarette butts could help clean water from birth control hormones

Cigarette butts, one of the most hated types of street debris, could actually be useful. A team of scientists from the Tomáš Baťa University in Zlín, say that they have developed a method of using cigarette butts to catch hormones in wastewater.

Illustrative photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

Whether it be on the pavement, in parks or even in the sea, cigarette butts can be found almost anywhere. Aesthetically displeasing and difficult to clean up, it is hard to find anyone who would appreciate this smokers trail. But that didn’t stop a team of scientists at Tomáš Baťa University in Zlín from trying to find a way to redeem this type of refuse. Dušan Kimmer, a researcher at the university’s Faculty of Technology, explains.

“We found out that cigarette butts are the third most common type of waste found in the world’s oceans. It’s also a problem on land, of course. We asked ourselves the question: What can be done with this? And so we tried recycling them and making something useful out of them.”

Dušan Kimmer | Photo: Roman Verner,  Czech Radio

The team found out that the cellulose acetate which is used in the production of cigarette filters is also able to catch hormones in wastewater. Dušan Kimmer again.

“First, they have to be cleaned with water and ethanol. Then these cigarette butts are dissolved and the resulting liquid is filtered once more, so that you get a more or less pure concentrate of cellulose acetate. We then transform this concentrate into fibres using an electrostatic field and, voilà, we get these nanofibers.”

A special fabric is then used to capture the nanofibers out of the electrostatic field as they evaporate. The fabric is itself filled with special filters for this purpose. To manufacture 10cm of the relevant fabric requires roughly 100 cigarette butts. What’s more, the extraction process does not require the use of any heavy chemicals or solvents that would be harmful to the environment, the team says.

Photo: Roman Verner,  Czech Radio

The end product can then be used to clean wastewater from unwanted hormones, which the head of Tomáš Baťa University’s Centre of Polymer Systems, Vladimír Sedlařík, says are otherwise very damaging to organisms found in the natural world.

Photo: Roman Verner,  Czech Radio

“The hormones that you find in water usually come from hormonal birth control pills. Their negative effect on water organisms is well known – they cause fundamental biological changes and affect the whole ecosystem.”

He says that while collecting cigarette butts may indeed be a tedious hassle, the results of the research show that such an effort would prove useful.

The team of scientists say that they have already added onto their theoretical discovery by initiating a joint project with a partner in the industry sector.

Photo: Roman Verner,  Czech Radio