How I Collected 1,000 Cigarette Butts

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I never smoked. I guess it’s because of the smell, the sickly scent that lingers on your clothes and hair long after you’re done with a cigarette.

Last week, I had the doubtful pleasure of experiencing the stench of 1,000 cigarette butts. Spoiler alert: It’s worse than you imagine. Much, much worse.

This is the story of why I did it.

Our Beaches Are Drowning in Cigarette Butts

It all started with articles about the impact of plastic straw pollution. They are the seventh most common trash item found on our beaches and got so much attention that within a few months they started getting banned all over the world.

You know what doesn’t get that much attention, though? Another trash item, so ubiquitous we tend to overlook it, even though we step on it 100 times a day. A trash item made from cellulose acetate that decomposes into microplastic particles.

Yes, I’m talking about cigarette butts.

Because they’re so tiny, we tend to believe they’re not litter, and that this one small cigarette butt doesn’t matter. The effect of our reckless behavior is startling: There’s no other trash item that is so omnipresent in our cities — and in our oceans, too. The Ocean Conservancy has noticed that cigarette butts account for one in every five items found in their annual Coastal Cleanups, which makes them the most littered item in the world.

cigarette butts infographic

Image courtesy of Omni Calculator

Let’s Go Collect Some Butts

Once I found out about this, I started digging deeper. In July this year, three French teenagers, Amel Talha, Jason Prince, and Christian Musitu Swamu, started a campaign against cigarette butts. Jason collected cigarette butts in a bottle and posted the picture on Twitter, while Amel launched #FillTheBottle. Since then, the hashtag has gone viral, causing hundreds of people to clean up as a protest to the flood of cigarette butt litter.

I asked four friends to take a walk with me to check how many cigarette butts we can collect in Kraków, Poland. We set ourselves a time frame — only 30 minutes — and we marched into the city streets, armed with glass jars and rubber gloves. We thought it would be impossible to fill five jars, one per person, in just half an hour.

We filled up nine.

With 1,000 cigarette butts. One thousand. Imagine the smell.

How Can We Make a Change?

This short cigarette-butt-collecting stroll gave me an idea. What if we weren’t alone? What if instead of five people, there would be 500 of us? Or 5,000? And if, instead of doing it just once, we committed to more regular cleanups? What would be our impact?

This thought led to the creation of the Cigarette Butt Cleanup Calculator. It’s a tool I built together with the Omni Calculator Project. It shows you what will be the tangible effects of your cleanup, whether it’s a one-off thing or a regular commitment.

My tool tells you not only how many cigarette butts you’re able to pick up in a given time, but also how many liters of ocean water you will save from contamination, and how many pounds of plastic litter will not wind up on our beaches. It also tells you how many children or pets could suffer severe poisoning if they consumed the cigarette butts you gathered. Small contributions add up to huge numbers; for example, by committing to collecting butts just 20 minutes a week, you’ll save 5,000 liters of water in a year.

Cigarette Butts Cleanup Calculator

So, grab a bottle or jar, call a few friends and family members, and organize your own cleanup. The more of us walking the streets of our cities with glass jars in our hands, the more awareness we’re going to spread. We already made plastic straws socially unacceptable. Now, it’s time to ban cigarette butts from our streets!

Feature image courtesy of Bogna Haponiuk

About the Author

Bogna HaponiukBogna Haponiuk is a weird mix of writer, engineer, and entrepreneur. She writes for Omni Calculator to raise awareness on environmental topics. In her free time, she’s dancing, unless it’s November, when she disappears for a month to write a NaNoWriMo novel.

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