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Australian Lab Finds New Use for Old Butts

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

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Researchers based out of RMIT University, in Melbourne, Australia, have come up with a solution to address one of the industry's chronic pollution issues by adding an unusual component to asphalt, concrete and other building materials: old cigarette butts.

Unconventional as it may be, the practice would recycle an otherwise largely unusable material while preventing contaminants from leaking into the ground, and even reduce localized heating in urban areas.

Butting Out Pollution

According to RMIT University, 6 trillion cigarettes are manufactured every year. This means that 1.2 million tons of cigarette butt waste winds up polluting streets, sidewalks and other areas. By 2025 these numbers will see a 50 percent increase, largely due to a projected upswing in global population, the university notes.

RMIT University

Researchers based out of RMIT University—led by Abbas Mohajerani, a senior lecturer in the school’s engineering department—have found that asphalt mixed with cigarette butts is both capable of handling heavy traffic, and reduces the urban heat island effect.

When a cigarette butt is in use, the filter collects toxic substances—arsenic, zinc, iron, cadmium and copper. One big problem is that when the butt is thrown away, if it is exposed to water, the substances it absorbed are released into the environment. On top of this, the elements themselves do not break down, and the filter itself is not biodegradable.

The exposure to water becomes a major issue once the cigarette butts get into storm water systems.

Researching Solutions

The RMIT researchers —led by Abbas Mohajerani, a senior lecturer at the school’s engineering department—have found that asphalt mixed with cigarette butts is both capable of handling heavy traffic, and reduces the urban heat island effect (UHI).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, UHI occurs when surfaces, such as asphalt or concrete, absorb and retain energy from the sun, to the point where the local climate is affected. Surfaces like roofs or pavement can heat up to 50 to 90 degrees hotter than the air on a hot, sunny day, resulting in localized temperatures in urban areas up to 20 degrees warmer than surrounding rural areas. This results in greater energy expenditures for cooling buildings, among other effects.

The researchers found that materials made from cigarette butts, including pavement and bricks, showed more insulative properties, and less conductivity, than traditional materials. Less conductive materials, the EPA notes, can heat up quickly, but do not transfer the heat as easily.

Keeping It Safe

But how can toxins in the cigarette butts be prevented from getting into the asphalt and out into the environment?

Researchers found the answer lies in encasing each piece of trash with both bitumen (also known as asphalt), and paraffin wax.

"We actually saturate and encapsulate the cigarette butt, and we don't use them on the surface of the pavement; we use them in the second layer,” Mohajerani told ABC News in Australia. “The encapsulation prevents the leeching of those chemicals. The water cannot reach inside the filters so chemicals cannot escape from the filters."

This new method has some promising implications for the future, the team says.

“Encapsulated cigarette butts developed in this research will be a new construction material which can be used in different applications and lightweight composite products,” Mohajerani said.

In total, the RMIT research endeavor ran for five years and gained the support of the Australian government, according to Construction Equipment.

Mohajerani has also had similar success with adding cigarette butts to bricks, which revealed that bricks treated with the pollution solution needed 58 percent less energy to be produced. Therefore, if 2.5 percent of the world’s annual brick production incorporated 1 percent cigarette butts, annual worldwide cigarette production would be completely offset.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Asphalt; Asphaltic/bituminous; Good Technical Practice; Research and development; Sustainability

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/16/2017, 11:09 AM)

It's a great idea, but my concerns would be in milling the asphalt for repaving and in the use of recycled asphalt products...I would suspect the benefits may not be permanent and that the heavy metals contamination would be released in these scenarios.

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