PEORIA, Ill. | Kirk Sheckler wants music festivalgoers to get their butts off the ground — cigarette butts, that is.
The retired Caterpillar engineer found a way to combine his passions for music and the environment, working with an environmental group on an innovative plan to keep tobacco waste off the ground and recycle it into new products.
At Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe a few years ago, Sheckler and his friend, festival organizer Jay Goldberg, were talking to another man who absentmindedly flicked an extinguished cigarette to the ground.
"Jay looked at me with this expression, like, 'Seriously?'" Sheckler said. He threw out the errant cigarette but knew there had to be a better solution than picking up after others, butt by butt. "That was really the epiphany."
Sheckler, a smoker himself, at first just hoped to get people to stop treating festival grounds like one big ashtray. Organizers told him that when they cleaned the grounds after a festival ended, tobacco waste made up 36 percent of the trash and collecting it took half their cleanup time.
While researching the problem, Sheckler found Aaron Tripp, of Sustainable Concepts Green Team, a group that organizes festivals' environmental efforts. Tripp also had noticed the cigarette problem but wasn't sure how to tackle it. So the two of them decided to team up.
Not long after, they found Terracycle, a New Jersey company that collects hard-to-recycle trash and "upcycles" it into new products. Terracycle had found a way to turn tobacco waste into plastic pallets and ashtrays, but didn't know where to get their supply. Sheckler and Tripp could provide the butts — and they'd just figured out what to do with them.
To encourage people to recycle, Sheckler found a company that could mass-produce fully recyclable pocket ashtrays — insulated foil and plastic cases that give smokers an easy way to store butts until a trash can is convenient.
They tested their idea for the first time at this year's Summer Camp festival, distributing 900 pocket ashtrays and asking people to dump them in bins they'd set aside. By the end of the weekend, they'd collected 7½ pounds of tobacco waste — more than 7,700 butts.
"We try to be as earth-friendly as we can, so to have someone who can come in and eliminate these butts all over the place is great," Goldberg said. "It's a huge help when we're cleaning up."
Music festivals attract a "pretty green crowd," Sheckler said, so they seemed like a natural place to start. They'll be taking the program to 10 Midwest festivals this summer. Initially they had to pitch their idea, but now festivals are coming to them. They hope to find like-minded volunteers who can help take the idea nationwide.
For Goldberg, the best part is that they've found a way to reuse the butts.
"They took something kind of gross that nobody wants, and found a way to create something new," he said.