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CODE: The Indian Startup That’s Earning From Used Cigarette Butts

by hridika ahire

CODE: The Indian Startup That’s Earning From Used Cigarette Butts

April 28, 2021

Cigarette Butts are one of the most littered items on earth, but for two Indian entrepreneurs, it's a business opportunity. The cigarette filter is made of cellulose acetate, a type of non-biodegradable plastic that takes almost 10 years to completely decompose. Naman Gupta and Vishal Kanet are recycling cigarette waste right from the filter and paper to ash and tobacco.

Indians and Tobacco

People in India have been known to smoke since at least 2000 BC. While it wasn’t a tobacco cigarette that people smoked, it was cannabis, as mentioned in the Atharvaveda. Tobacco was introduced in India by the 17th century. To date, tobacco is considered ‘cool’ amongst the youth.

What is not cool, is dying of cancer, which is inevitable if you keep smoking for a long time. There are around 120 million smokers in India. It is also home to 12% of the world’s smokers, as recorded by World Health Organization (WHO). More than 1 million people die per year due to diseases caused by tobacco.

Indian-cigarettes-scoolbuzz
Smoking in India has been known since at least 2000 BC when cannabis was smoked.

How Much Does An Indian Smoke?

A typical daily smoker smokes an average of 6.8 cigarettes per day in India. Half of the people who smoke cigarettes, smoke less than five cigarettes per day, 30 percent of smokers smoke 5-9 cigarettes, 14 percent of smokers smoke 10-14 cigarettes per day, and 3 percent smoke more than 25 cigarettes a day! That is a lot of smoke for the human lungs to soak.

A daily smoker in India spends Rs. 1,192.45 per month on average. Wait, wait, there’s more. A daily smoker from states like Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab spends Rs. 2,600 per month on cigarettes, whereas a daily smoker from Karnataka and Delhi spends more than Rs. 1,500 per month on cigarettes. Manipur, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh are the only states that spend less than Rs. 500 on cigarettes in a month.

What Happens To The Butts?

For those of you who smoke, have you ever put any thought to what happens to the butts after you’ve smoked the cigarette? You crush it with your feet, or put it in an ashtray or just throw it away without a care. But did you know what the cigarette filter is made of? It is made of cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plastic that takes almost ten years to decompose completely.

Every year more than 100 billion cigarette butts are dumped in the landfills of India. That is why cigarette waste is not only detrimental to health but also the environment. To help India fight against this environmental hazard, two entrepreneurs named Naman Gupta and Vishal Kanet started a company called “CODE”. This company offers a one-time recycling solution to this waste.

cigarettes-butts-scoolbuzz
Filters are intended to reduce the harm caused by smoking by reducing harmful elements inhaled by smokers.

Code Effort Pvt. Ltd.

The Noida-based Code Effort Pvt. Ltd. Processes all the leftovers of a cigarette and makes a range of products like cushions, soft toys, and organic compost. The duo got the idea for this start-up after a house party they attended with a group of friends saw how many cigarette buds were littering the house at the end. Naman Gupta said, “We looked at the two ashtrays we had filled in a few hours and wondered if one room of friends can generate so much trash; what is the scale of the waste worldwide?”

Naman and Vishal had been friends for years. They tried imagining the afterlife of the leftover cigarette buds. Questions like ‘What happens to the stubs after they are thrown into the dustbin?’, ‘Are they biodegradable?’, ‘How much pollution do they cause?”, “Can they be recycled?” appeared in the youngsters’ minds, and they started looking for the answers and realized that the filters of the cigarettes are harmful to the environment.

Cigarette Waste Management

Back in 2016, Naman was a B. Com student from Delhi University, and Vishal had an engineering background but was working as a photographer. After they realized the environmental hazard caused by cigarette buds, they experimented for a month and tried to process the chemicals and make them clean and recycle the polymer. They launched Code Enterprise, a cigarette waste management firm that recycles cigarette stubs into different products.

Since both the guys knew the Delhi- National Capital Region (NCR) area pretty well, they started operating there. The first step was to educate people on the usefulness of the waste material. They started giving out pamphlets to the vendors and explained what they had to do. Naman said, “We provided them with a cigarette waste collection bin called VBin, and we assured them Rs. 250 per kilo of cigarette waste. We also gave bins to commercial spaces for their smoking rooms.”

close up heap of many smoking cigarettes stubs cig MPNX2WV 1

The process

Once the waste was collected, it was then deconstructed. The tobacco left, and the paper covering the cigarette butt is decomposed and left to yield manure. At the same time, the filter is recycled by a treatment process that Vishal had innovated. The manure produced is sold to gardeners, and the filter, which has become 99.9% safe after the treatment, is used in making the stuffing for toys and cushions and other packaging materials.

Initially, the company did not get much support from the public because people simply didn’t care. In the first month, they only got 10 grams of cigarette waste. Over time, corporates and commercial spaces started supporting the initiative. “Most companies have corporate social responsibility programs. What we do is good for the environment, and we were also providing a specific rate for the waste,” said Naman.

Future Plans

After a year, Vishal left, and Naman relaunched the company as Code Effort. He has been self-funding the business since then. The company issues specific contracts to suppliers across the country and even has contracts with people who supply the company with at least 30kgs of cigarette waste every month. These associates are then given the target of selling at least 500 finished products made by the company per district.

“Companies that manufacture cigarettes such as ITC and Marlboro supply their rejected products to us. We have specific contracts that we have signed for sourcing that industrial waste.” Naman explains. Karnataka and Maharashtra are the two biggest cigarette waste suppliers for the company. Naman says that the company will launch a range of products soon, including a mosquito repellent made from leftover paper and tobacco, soft toys, and even an air-purifying system for chimneys. They have plans of joining hands with NGOs as they still don’t have government support but fall right in sync with the government’s Swachh Bharat policy.

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