If you live in San Francisco, you’ve likely noticed it’s hard to go a block without seeing cigarette butts strewn about the sidewalk. It kind of makes sense, as buttcans are few and far between and it’s unsafe to throw a less-than-entirely-extinguished cigarette butt into the garbage. But this is a big problem, as cigarette butts hold toxic chemicals such as nicotine, arsenic, and formaldehyde. They’re also made of plastic, which means they never biodegrade. Butts left on the ground photodegrade into smaller and smaller bits of microplastic that end up in our environment.

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world. In the Bay Area alone, smokers litter about 3 billion butts per year. Our dedicated Hold onto Your Butt (HOTYB) volunteers are working to install more buttcans in SF and beyond in order to provide smokers with a safe alternative to the ubiquitous cigarette flick.

To that end, our HOTYB Program Lead, Shelly Ericksen, recently won a competitive NOAA marine debris grant that will allow us to install about 200 buttcans in strategic locations across SF and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Our goal is to change the behavior of SF residents and tourists and drastically reduce the amount of butt debris that enters our waterways.

The HOTYB program recently installed 40 buttcans in the Richmond and Sunset Districts and found that the cans capture ~9,000 butts each month. (Public Works Ambassadors count the deposited butts and recycle them through TerraCycle.) After hearing about the success of this pilot program, the National Parks Service reached out to Shelly, suggesting she apply for the NOAA grant.

“One of the reasons NOAA was really interested is because everyone is aware of this problem but people seem to be at a loss for how to address it,” Shelly says. “[NOAA was] excited to see that our program is gaining traction in the city and is actually working.”

Not only will the grant help us keep butts off the street, it’ll allow us to measure our impact. We’ll be placing the ~200 buttcans in heavily littered locations across San Francisco, as well as in coastal areas outside the city, like Point Reyes. Public Works Ambassadors and NPS will count the deposited butts.

We’re going to need a lot of help, so stay tuned for upcoming volunteer dates! We’ll eventually need people to install cans but, most immediately, we’ll need assistance scouting and collecting data at potential install locations. If you’d like to learn more and get involved, check out our page!

Shelly also wants the world to know winning this grant wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her contacts at the National Parks Service, Sunshine Swinford, and Surfrider Headquarters.

Let your SF district supervisor know getting butt litter off the streets is important to you. You can find your District here and your Supervisor’s email and phone number here. And please help us out by reporting spots that have a high volume of cigarette litter on 311!