Cigarette butts dropped on the ground increase the need for sidewalk and street sweeping, and cleaning in parks, drains, and waterways. In fact, tobacco litter alone makes up more than 34 percent of all litter in outdoor recreation areas, from picnic pavilions to hiking trails, making these natural assets less attractive.
No matter where you are in Philly, one problem is constant: People leave cigarette butts everywhere. But thanks to microgrants from Keep Philadelphia Beautiful (KPB), community groups across the city are tackling the mess, and its causes.
Homeowners and businessowners bear the effort and costs of clearing their sidewalks and entrances, and that persistent litter makes the area less attractive to tourists, visitors, and potential residents, and decreases foot traffic, which hurts economic development (for example, the presence of litter in a community can lower the value of nearby properties by more than seven percent).
The natural environment suffers, too: 32 percent of litter at storm drains is tobacco products, and cigarette filters are almost entirely composed of a kind of plastic called cellulose acetate, which hangs around in waterways, hurting wildlife—especially land and marine animals who eat the filters by accident.
According to Shalimar Thomas, the executive director of KPB grant recipient North Broad Renaissance (NBR) they’re starting with the basics, because many people don’t realize that dropping a cigarette butt on the sidewalk is actually littering.
“That is surprising to people,” she says. “They don’t look at it the same as throwing garbage on the ground.”
So NBR, in addition to an innovative program for increasing the number of cigarette receptacles in the neighborhood, distributes educational cards to local businesses, which help people understand that the butts are litter which decreases economic activity and property values, and even hurts local job prospects.
The KPB micro-grant program is now in its fourth year, and six other groups join North Broad Renaissance in the anti-cigarette litter effort. You can read more about the 2018 grantees’ projects here.
Thomas says that NBR (a non-profit special service district covering the North Broad corridor from City Hall to Germantown Avenue) is focusing its $2,500 KPB grant on the 19140 Zip code. She calls this “one of the unhealthiest districts in Philadelphia,” with high rates of chronic health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
NBR already has a robust litter-collection and prevention program (you can read more about them in this story). But while there is improvement in the amounts of littered items like paper, plastic, and restaurant wrappings, Thomas says the amount of cigarette litter isn’t budging.
NBR decided to adopt a program that saw significant success in the UK: “Ballot bins—they’re actually cigarette receptacles where you can vote with your cigarette butt.”
The original ballot bins across the pond posed yes or no questions to smokers, who could vote on answers by placing their butts in the corresponding bins. But NBR wanted to be sure it wasn’t encouraging people to smoke with the questions, so Thomas says it’s partnering with the Philadelphia Health Department to script “true or false” questions about the health effects of smoking.
And thanks to the glass-fronted bins, “this is not just people voting with cigarettes. We’re getting information from this,” Thomas notes. Before emptying each bin, they’ll document the levels with photographs to get a better idea of where more education is needed.
NBR’s inaugural two bins were already donated to the non-profit, and the KPB grant is going to help the organization track the result: “If it’s good, we can purchase more,” Thomas says. One bin is going in front of a recovery center on North Broad, and another is going in at Broad and Allegheny, a major transit hub suffering from lots of tobacco litter.
Thomas hopes the bins and education around them will be one more way to engage with the local community while also keeping them informed.