Volunteers picked up more than 120,000 cigarette butts in one day in Belfast

In a single day in May 2022, a Belfast group and student volunteers collected more than 120,000 discarded cigarette butts from city streets in a bid to reduce toxic waste.

The Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition launched its Butts Be Gone campaign in 2019 to tackle cigarette butt littering in Belfast. They have spent the past three years collecting cigarette butts from the streets and installing disposal containers. The group has also recycled around 15,418 cigarette butts since the initiative was launched.

Estimates are based on how full the containers are when emptied. Each can hold up to 600 cigarette butts. The weight of the bags is also used in the estimate.

Studies show that cigarette butts are the most common type of marine litter. Their toxins and microplastics pose ecological risks to fish, marine bacteria, water fleas and other marine species. According to Susan Connolly, a member of the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition, cigarette butts easily end up in waterways, especially in areas like Belfast where rain can wash the litter up hills or into storm drains that run into throw into the bay.

Connolly and other members of the Butts Be Gone team are working to change that.

Every month, Connolly empties the 14 cigarette butt disposal canisters – also known as butlers – that the coalition has set up in Belfast city centre. These butlers can hold up to 600 cigarette butts at a time – and Connolly said they refill frequently. Other members travel to Belfast city center to pick up cigarette butts left on the ground.

Butlers collected more than 95,000 cigarettes in 2020, the first year they were set up, Connolly said. From the start, the coalition worked with the nonprofit TerraCycle to recycle this waste into new plastic products.

Connolly said campaign members were more focused on fighting litter than smoking.

“If you smoke, you smoke. We’re just trying to find a way to make it easier for people to do the right thing,” she said.

Susan’s husband, Kevin Connolly, said the coalition has since heard from Belfast residents who smoke at home and don’t know what to do with the waste.

“They also want to help. They want to get rid of their butts, have them used for something if they’re going to smoke,” Susan Connolly said.

To give local smokers the chance to help, the coalition placed a container at Belfast Transfer Station in October to collect cigarette butts on a larger scale.

Residents can find an old fridge with the label ‘butts’ – which coalition members are eagerly considering replacing with a larger, more obvious magnet this week. The broken refrigerator, found at the transfer station, is used to keep cigarette butts dry in an airtight container.

The Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition has set up a station at Belfast Transfer Station where smokers can recycle their cigarette butts. The Butts Be Gone team empties the “Butts” refrigerator at the transfer station weekly to send the cigarette butts to TerraCycle, a non-profit organization that recycles them into other plastics. Credit: Kay Neufeld / BDN

It hasn’t been easy for the team at Butts Be Gone. Susan Connolly doesn’t like touching something that was in someone else’s mouth, for example.

It can also be daunting to continually have to pick up trash when there are butlers all over town, said coalition member Marianne McKinney.

Kevin Connolly said he went to clean up the butlers and found cigarette butts littered just underneath, which he said could be a sign of a backlash.

But, added McKinney, it’s worth it. She hasn’t seen any litter in the garden outside the Front Street public toilets since the coalition installed a butler there.

“To see a clean street, every time it gets a little better,” she said.

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