This biologist is cleaning up the world’s most littered item

When I was helping out as a volunteer some years ago at My Place, a temporary answer to the homeless encampment in Victoria, BC, one of the things I did was to pick up cigarette butts in a two block radius around the old fire hall which had been turned into a shelter.

This volunteer task came about because neighbours feared there might be needles and syringes near the elementary school just across the road. And rather than just cleaning up the school yard, Our Place – which runs various shelters and support programs – had said that volunteers would clean up a larger area.

Twice a week, I would go out armed with a trash picker and a can, and pick up garbage. I never found any needles, but I did find a great many cigarette butts. It seemed like some people regularly dumped their ashtrays on to the road when they parked their cars.

I quite often ran into people who were happy and said their neighbourhood had never looked so clean. One person was particularly pleased that our volunteer cleanup meant cigarette butts didn’t run into the drainage system and pollute the water.

Photo by Lara Jameson from Pexels

So when I read about Lisa Chen’s ‘Let’s Talk Butts Campaign’, founded in Missisauga, Ontario in July 2019 as part of her Stage 3 community outreach project for the Canadian Conservation Corps, I understood how important this work is.

The campaign, which aims at eliminating cigarette butt litter through cleanups, outreach, litter mapping, creating butt collection cans and reaching out to stakeholders, has since reached people from Vietnam, the Philippines, and the US. Formerly funded by the Canadian Conservation Corps and TakingITGlobal, it is currently funded by Chantiers Jeunesse.

Lisa is a marine biologist, conservationist and educator whose work has taken her to Costa Rica, Thailand, Vietnam, and the USA. She is actively involved in marine conservation and research, environmental education, habitant protection and waste reduction, and is the founder and CEO of Marine Way, an app-based solution for ghost fishing gear in Canadian water. 

I first heard about her work in the most recent Future Crunch newsletter’s Humankind feature. After graduating from university, determined to use her biology degree to fight climate change but unable to find a job, she decided to travel around south-east Asia for six months. When she found herself on a remote beach in Malaysia covered in plastic waste and cigarette butts, she wondered why residents didn’t clean it up. Then she learned that they didn’t know, for example, that a single butt could contaminate 500 litres of water for a decade because that information had never been translated into their language.

Her website helps communities around the world map out cigarette hot spots and create safe collection containers so butts get recycled. And the campaign pamphlets have been translated into local languages to help drive a bigger change.

Her website shares things we should all know about butts:

  • 4.95 Trillion butts are littered annually around the world.
  • Cigarette butts are the No. 1 littered items in the world.
  • One butt can pollute up to 500 liters of water.
  • Butt filters are made from cellulose acetate (a type of non-biodegradable plastic).
  • Butts can be recycled into plastic pallets and lumber.
  • Butts can contain up to 60 known carcinogens.
  • Butts contain harmful chemicals such as cadmium, lead, and arsenic
  • Butts can leach harmful chemicals within one hour of contact with water.
  • Toxic chemicals leached by butts can remain in an area up to 10 years.
  • Butt leaching is known to inhibit plant growth.
  • Toxin leached into the soil will be biomagnified up the food chain onto your plates.
  • Butts can cause digestive blockage when ingested by wildlife.
  • Butts do not decompose, they breakdown into micro- and nano-plastics and bioaccumulate up the food chain onto your plate.