Town Haul Podcast | Episode 21

According to Town Haul host Amy Koonin, Ken Beckstead is the epitome of the old saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Beckstead created Butts Only Box, receptacles that make throwing away cigarette butts convenient. Once Beckstead learned that cigarette butts can actually generate energy, he began a program that converts cigarette waste to energy. Find out what sparked Beckstead’s journey in this Town Haul recap.

On how Beckstead became obsessed with cigarette butts:

BECKSTEAD: “I did a little litter study myself and I found a California Department of Transportation litter study. The CalTrans litter study showed that 34 percent of the trash that they pick up is cigarette litter. So seeing cigarette butts at every freeway off-ramp and freeway on-ramp that has a meter on it, I decided to just make a huge cigarette receptacle to start collecting cigarette butts and see what I could do.”

On how he created the very first Butts Only box himself:

BECKSTEAD: “Well, I started the process of making a box myself in my backyard, because I was a normal guy with not a lot of money. So I actually had to go buy a cheap welder and teach myself how to weld. So I had a design element, I came up with a pretty good design I thought, but welding it and putting it together, you learned how things go together. So I developed it, and as soon as I got it done, I applied for a patent.

As soon as I got the patent pending, I went to the California Department of Transportation and sought their approval. It normally takes three to six years to get a product approved by CalTrans. I got a letter back in two and a half months.

I thought I messed up on the application. I actually got approved that fast. I called CalTrans and asked them, how did I get approved so fast? They said, “Nobody’s ever put a cigarette receptacle on the side of the road. It caught us off guard.” So she said that’s probably the fastest approval of any CalTrans product in history. I was really happy with my approval.”

On when he discovered the power of cigarette butts:

BECKSTEAD: “We went and installed so many receptacles that we started collecting so much cigarette waste, CalTrans says, “You got to find a use for these things other than putting them in a landfill.” What I did is I sent off some cigarette butts to a laboratory for a British Thermal Unit Potential Test.

The test came back the same as lignite coal. I was a little shocked.

I took those results to a Refuse To Energy plant run by Los Angeles County Sanitation District. They actually told me, you’re producing 576 watts of energy with each pound of cigarette waste.

I was taken back. I did not know that we’re throwing away so much energy. So like the cell phone that we’re talking on, you can charge for an hour with 24 cigarette butts.”

On the importance of finding new uses for discarded items:

BECKSTEAD: “In 1998, just one year, we threw away 170 million pounds of cigarette waste. If I could’ve got all that, I could have powered 8,900 American homes, 24 hours a day, for an entire year. That’s how much energy we’re throwing away, just one cigarette butt at a time, without even realizing it.

This is what we have to do with everything from bubble gum to toothpicks. We’ve already done it with plastic straws. We just have to start looking at everything that we’re surrounded with and see what we can use it for good instead of just letting it go into a landfill forever.”

On his go-to guilty pleasure food:

BECKSTEAD: “Barbecue. Brisket. Just brisket. A good old brisket anywhere. Anytime.”