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The biggest plastic pollutant in the world? No, not water bottles. Cigarette butts.

During a hushed late-night study, a revelation emerged. In a petri dish, fungi feasted on cellulose acetate, the stubborn plastic heart of cigarette butts, with an almost palpable hunger. The sight sent chills down my spine, like a microscopic dance of nature reclaiming its space.

  • 5 months ago
  • October 12, 2023
6 min read
Cigarette butts represent the largest plastic pollutant in the world and seep tons of toxic chemicals into the earth. | Photo courtesy of Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash Cigarette butts represent the largest plastic pollutant in the world and seep tons of toxic chemicals into the earth. | Photo courtesy of Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash
Interview subject
Julia Inés Fariña, hailing from the vibrant province of Tucumán in Argentina, serves as the esteemed leader of the Mycodiversity and Micoprospecting group at Proimi, CONICET. Holding a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Dr. Fariña’s expertise and passion position her at the forefront of her field, shedding light on the untapped potential of fungi and their diverse applications.
background information

Cigarette butts, the world’s most discarded waste, contribute to a staggering 766.6 million kilograms of toxic microplastic pollution annually, as highlighted in a recent study. In response, the United Nations and the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are launching a social media campaign, backed by the 63-country-strong Clean Seas coalition, to address the environmental and health threats posed by these pollutants. The plastic filters alone can take more than a decade to fully decompose. According to the Truth Initiative, in the U.S. alone, butts make up more than three quarters of a million metric tons of litter annually.

TUCUMÁN, Argentina – From sandy beaches to bustling parks and serene mountain trails, disturbing scenes caught my attention everywhere I looked. Discarded cigarette butts tainted every landscape. These silent invaders hovered around with their long lifespans, and I shuddered at the thought of the amount of toxins infiltrating the soil.

Amidst nature’s beauty, the harsh sunlight revealed an ugly truth. Time and humidity would break the cigarette butts down, but their decay comes at a cost. The butts would release a medley of harmful chemicals, therefore threatening the ecosystems I love.

In the face of this challenge, I felt a surge of determination. As a researcher, I knew I had to find a natural solution so I turned to the potential of fungi, nature’s own warrior, to tackle the pervasive pollution from cigarette butts head-on.

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A spark ignites: can fungi help us tackle cigarette pollution?

During Tucumán’s celebration of Environment Day, excitement filled the air. Stalls displayed green innovations, and everyone talked about nature. Walking with my daughter, a chemistry graduate who won a CONICET award, we felt a shared love for our planet.

We met a group of people who stood looking at the piles of cigarette butts. “What can be done about these,” they asked. Their question hit home. Argentina’s diverse landscape – from dense forests to open hills – offered hints for a solution.

After seeing what fungi can do, I became amazed by their power, and it ignited an idea. This idea aligned perfectly with my desire to make a difference for the environment and undoubtedly came with the exciting possibility of innovation.

Retreating to our laboratory, a sanctuary of science, my dedicated team and I embarked on an exploratary journey into the intricate world of fungi.

The Yungas region, with its lush subtropical mountain jungle, promised a reservoir of fungal candidates. As we isolated each fungal specimen, I envisioned these fungi beneath the Yungas trees, tirelessly neutralizing pollutants. In this dream, they acted as eco-warriors, reclaiming the land and weaving a brighter future. With each test, hope surged.

Fungi offer a game changing breakthrough against cigarette butt pollution

In our brightly lit lab, we embarked on a screening process where we put fungi under the microscope. With bated breath, we sought answers. Would any of these fungi produce the magic molecule capable of degrading cigarette butts? The air, thick with expectation, seemed to hold time itself.

Our results highlighted a select group of fungi. They showcased not only an adeptness at breaking down complex cigarette compounds but also an uncanny resilience against metals. Each discovery felt like a personal triumph, as if we were decoding a mysterious language written by nature.

Weeks morphed into a blur of intense focus and dedication. Then, during a hushed late-night study, a revelation emerged. In a petri dish, the fungi feasted on cellulose acetate, the stubborn plastic heart of cigarette butts, with an almost palpable hunger.

The sight sent chills down my spine as I watched the microscopic dance of nature reclaiming its space. A collective cheer erupted in the lab as our team forgot their collective exhaustion for a moment. After all, we faced a monumental breakthrough. Still, we knew that translating this miracle in the lab to the vast outside world would prove challenging.

Cigarette pollution requires action, passion remains our driving force

Addressing the cigarette pollution problem requires strategic action. Cigarette butts need to be separated from the environment at their place of origin, not plucked one by one from sprawling landfills. As a result, this demands dedicated disposal sites, ensuring we isolate the waste from the environment. While stored, their potential to harm ecosystems diminishes, but we must also decide on their ultimate fate.

Reflecting on these challenges, my driving force remains ever clear. I hold tight to my passion to make our environment cleaner and safer against this kind of pollution. My steady love for this project charts the course and subsequently, each obstacles becomes a valuable learning point. 

Cigarette butts – often not talked about – represent a silent killer in the environment taking up to a decade or more to fully degrade while releasing toxic chemicals. | Photo courtesy of Julia Inés Fariña

I vividly recall my younger self, eyes ablaze with ambition, wanting to make impactful contributions to the world; not ones buried in technical jargon or confined to papers. I want to show the world that science can intertwine with our daily lives, leaving an indelible imprint.

In the lab, each day feels like an adventure, expanding my scientific perspective of the world around me and deepening my understanding of the intricate nature of the earth. When I enter the lab it evokes the same thrill a child feels stepping into an amusement park filled with the potential for unending discoveries. Every interaction with colleagues and nature amplifies my belief that I’m exactly where I need to be.

Update at the time of story publication

Since the start of the project in 2019, we have achieved laboratory-scale bioremediation capable of treating up to six liters of cigarette butts. We identified two promising native fungi and three others that could enhance future stages of the project.

Currently, we’re producing inocula for the selected fungi in bioreactors. As part of the process, these inocula confront the cigarette butts for decontamination. The anticipated outcome is the mineralization of the cigarette’s organic carbon into carbon dioxide and the bioaccumulation of heavy metals within the fungal biomass. This strategy aims to confine the pollutants to reduce further contamination.

All these stages have taken place at PROIMI-CONICET in Tucumán, Argentina; and collaborative efforts with the CINDEFI-CONICET team and UNLP in La Plata are underway to test and scale up the process for larger volumes. This expansion aims to analyze its real-world application potential and explore the project’s chemical, biological, toxicological, environmental, and operational feasibility.

The dissemination of our results across academic, health, and environmental platforms has garnered attention from various stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, universities, and the private sector. With growing global interest in eco-friendly bioremediation strategies like ours, we’ve received numerous inquiries and support offers.

If augmented by government and private sector financing, we believe our project could move closer to a successful large-scale implementation. The sheer volume of this pollutant presents a challenge. Yet, our approach promises an efficient and environmentally respectful solution.

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