San Francisco’s Union Square Business Improvement District and Block by Block piloted the installation of 10 TerraCycle cigarette butt receptacles in August 2016. Since then, they have observed a dramatic reduction in cigarette butt litter where receptacles are installed. We recently interviewed them about the program, which has been a great success.
How long does each receptacle take to fill? Approximately 1 week
How often are receptacles emptied? 2x per week, at the beginning and end of the week
How many butts does a receptacle hold? 500-700
How much cigarette waste has been recycled to date: 25 lbs of dry butts
How was waste stored? Plastic garbage bags in a large box
Why did they adopt the program? Union Square BID was struggling to abate cigarette litter. A Block by Block staff member brought the TerraCycle receptacles to their attention as a proven, effective means to reduce cigarette litter, having had success with the program in other cities across the U.S.
Have they seen any evidence that the receptacles promote smoking? No increase in smoker activity around the receptacles has been observed. They were installed in known hotspots, identified by concentrations of cigarette butts (in Union Square, these areas included nightclubs, youth hostels, and near trash cans).
Have they observed a decrease in cigarette litter where receptacles are installed? The decrease in cigarette litter has been “night and day” since receptacles were installed. Ashcans keep existing smokers from littering, and discourage others from smoking there because they don’t see the butts scattering the ground. If smokers have a convenient place to dispose of their butts, they overwhelmingly use it.
How does the BID pay for the receptacles and their maintenance? They allocate a portion of their cleaning budget for the purchase of receptacles, and contract with Block by Block to maintain them.
How have the receptacles impacted labor time and costs? Cigarette butt receptacles have significantly decreased labor time and costs. The whole process of emptying the receptacles and storing butts for recycling takes approximately 15 minutes, versus having to manually sweep and collect the butts off the ground. They still manually pick up any butts observed on the ground, and have seen a dramatic decrease in number they have to pick up.
Nearly every neighborhood in San Francisco faces the problem of rampant littering of cigarette butts and other trash. It’s overwhelming, and sometimes feels like it’s easier not to care. Not every neighborhood is as lucky as the Outer Richmond, with neighbors like Pawel, business owners like Yuka of Cassava, and the organizations like the amazing Richmond District Neighborhood Center, who actually do something about it. Pawel saw one of our Hold on to your Butt cigarette recycling receptacles — “buttcylers”– and thought “every neighborhood should have these.” He reached out to Yuka, also head of the Balboa Village Merchants Association who emphatically agreed.
To raise awareness about the cigarette butt littering problem — which many people don’t notice — we organized a cigarette butt cleanup. Pawel spearheaded the effort, with support from Surfrider and our friends at Public Works’ fantastic Adopt-A-Street program
In about 2 hours, 14 volunteers collected over 6,000 cigarette butts, and 8 bags of trash. We’ll be highlighting these results at the next Balboa Village Merchants Association meeting. The proof is in the butt, as they (may or may not) say, and we hope the passion and efforts of this neighborhood to have clean streets, free of toxic plastic cigarette litter, will make installation of cigarette receptacles or buttcyclers a no-brainer. The Richmond District Neighborhood Center is leading the way! They’ve adopted 5 receptacles, an amazing show of support and commitment to a cleaner, safer neighborhood.
Local bakeries Butter Love and Marla Bakery offered sweet treats for all of those who participated, and business owners thanked volunteers countless times. The cleanup was even featured in the Richmond Blog and got a shoutout from Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer’s office — not too shabby for a week or so’s worth of preparation and a couple hours of good dirty fun!
(Image credits, from top: Sandra Lee Fewer’s office, Ken Pechous, Pawel Dlugosz)
On a normal day, we’d be calling HR. But we’re talking about cigarette butts, and for Salesforce #Futureforce volunteers, this was no normal day. Salesforce took a stand for the environment last week when team leaders Stephanie and Jessica brought together 15 recent grads and interns from the #Futureforce for a volunteer day with Surfrider’s Hold on to Your Butt committee to clean up cigarette butt litter, and install the first cigarette recycling station (aka ashcan) in San Francisco’s Financial District.
We met up at Salesforce’s Mission and Fremont St. offices, I subjected them to my spiel (get the facts here), geared them up with gloves, grabbers, and buckets, and they hit the streets.
There’s a first time for everything, and though I didn’t ask, I’m betting this is the first time these tech workers started their day at Salesforce not in the building, but outside, on the streets of San Francisco, on a mission to pick up cigarette butts.
The rest of us set up camp at 45 Fremont, and unfurled our new banner designed by environmentalist ad agency gyro. First comment off the street was “That’s bulls**t”– but hey, we got the guy’s attention, and who knows, maybe he was just having a bad day. Regardless, his was the only negative response of the day — other passersby stopped, read, and appreciated our message.
We proceeded to install the Surfrider ashcan, sponsored by Salesforce. I’ll be emptying it for the time being, until the City recognizes the need to install and maintain ashcans all over San Francisco. With this install, Salesforce is not only demonstrating its commitment reducing plastic toxic waste, but also upholding San Francisco law – the SF Department of Public Works (DPW) requires that every business in San Francisco must have a cigarette litter receptacle.
Stalwart Surfrider volunteer Ken wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – or a bit bloody – in getting our ashcan strapped to its new home. Next time we bring work gloves! Ken rocked it and has been granted the possibly dubious honor of being our official SF ashcan installer.
We had the luck of a sunny day and the volunteers were out for nearly 2 hours circling the blocks around Salesforce, and bringing home the butts – an astonishing 7,400!!
We can’t say thank you enough for their help! And neither could all the folks who thanked our volunteers as they cleaned up our beautiful, filthy, dirty city.
We’ll be recycling all of these butts through TerraCycle. First though, they’ll make an appearance at our Message in a Bottle plastic pollution art and education event this weekend – Feb 3-5. Hope to see you there!
*3/8/2017 UPDATE* We received the official count from TerraCycle, and Salesforce volunteers collected an astounding 7,400 cigarette butts! Post updated from original estimate of 5,000 butts.
Cigarette filters are made of 12,000 individual strands of a high-grade plastic called cellulose acetate. Cellulose acetate is also used to make sunglasses, textiles, good old-fashioned photographic film, personal hygiene products, and more.
Cigarette filters look like cotton, paper, or some other kind of natural fiber, because cellulose acetate is derived from cotton in a complex way I finally understand after reading Patricia dePra’s explanation.
Cellulose acetate is used instead of natural fibers such as cotton or paper because it holds up against heat and moisture—handy and practical features to have at the mouth-end of a lit cigarette—and because it’s cheaper and more uniform to manufacture than biodegradable alternatives.
Most smokers don’t litter other forms of plastic. And, people as a rule avoid deliberately contaminating their environment—most wouldn’t toss dead batteries off the dock or down a storm drain. But it’s still common practice to flick a plastic butt loaded with lead, cadmium, arsenic, nicotine, and other toxins on to the ground, where they leach these nasty contaminants into the water and soil, threatening life on land and at sea. Just one smoked cigarette butt was found to kill half the fish in one liter of water.
Why do smokers do this? I wish I could tell you. I’m a former smoker, and I did it too. I can tell you that I didn’t know that cigarette butts are plastic—and never thought about the toxins they trap. Nor did much thought or awareness go into that flick. It was just what you did when you finished your cigarette.
Some who study this will say that it’s because smokers want to distance themselves from their habit, and subconsciously that may be true, but mostly I think it’s because cig butts stink to high heaven and there’s often nowhere to safely toss them out. Not an excuse, I know. But it is a reason. Until we’re aware that our actions cause harm, we have no reason to change them.
The real rub is that cigarette filters do not reduce the harm of smoking, and may in fact increase it. They’re a marketing tactic used by tobacco companies to sell more cigarettes. Filters require smokers to draw more heavily on the cigarette when they take a puff, and smoke more cigarettes to get the same nicotine fix.
It’s maddening that the most littered item in the world is not only toxic and plastic, but completely unnecessary. Here in San Francisco, Surfrider’s Hold on to Your Butt program is working to change this by educating smokers, installing cigarette receptacles, advocating for enforcement of littering laws, and demanding that big tobacco get their plastic out of smokers’ butts. Together, we can keep this toxic trash out of our environment.
In the year and a half since we launched the San Francisco “cheek” of the very successful Surfrider Hold on to Your Butt cigarette waste reduction program, we’ve kept more than 71,000 cigarette butts from entering our oceans and waterways. Our predecessors in San Diego and Huntington Beach, taught us everything we needed to get the program up and running, and we at the SF chapter can’t thank them enough for that!
I’m Shelly, I lead SF’s Hold on to Your Butt program, and I’m starting this new blog, “No Filter,” to share information with San Franciscans and Surfriders alike. And giving a shameless plug for our Instagram feed @holdontoyourbutt, the Surfrider SF Facebook page, and the requisite butt pic with the naked truth: the 8,950 cigarette butts shown here were all collected at Ocean Beach and Baker Beach, and represent but a small fraction of the 4.5 trillion cigarette butts littered around the world every year.
Butts that end up on beaches don’t necessarily start there: all roads lead to the ocean, and a butt that’s flicked in the Mission can easily end up getting snuffed up by a dog at Ocean Beach or swallowed by a seagull along the Embarcadero.
Why do smokers litter these plastic, toxic cigarette butts? Why does Big Tobacco persist in sticking plastic filters on the number one most littered item in the world? Why doesn’t San Francisco do more to mitigate this toxic waste? And most importantly, how can we stop this from happening once and for all? We’ll explore this and more right here.