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This photo was taken in 2007 at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver, B.C., during the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. ((Kathryn Pybus))

While the plastic bag is often vilified as the prime polluter of Canada's coasts, a nationwide cleanup effort has found that a type of trash many Canadians toss without a second thought is piling up on the country's shorelines.

Cigarette butts — by the tens of thousands — are the No. 1 item recovered during the annual TD Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.

But few Canadians seem to recognize cigarette butts are trash, said Eric Solomon, vice-president of conservation, research and education at the Vancouver Aquarium.

"Many people who would never throw, for instance, a plastic bag on the ground, would go ahead and toss a cigarette butt on the ground and step on it and leave it there," he said.

The annual cleanup was initiated by the aquarium more than a decade ago and TD Bank signed on later as a sponsor. This year's cleanup is scheduled for Sept. 20 to 28 at more than 1,000 sites across the country.

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'We have convinced most dog owners to clean up after their pets. Maybe we could also make it socially unacceptable to discard cigarette butts indiscriminately.'

—Aegyder

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Results of a shoreline cleanup survey released Wednesday show only 18 per cent of Canadians believe cigarette butts are the top blight on our shorelines, while 49 per cent of Canadians believe plastic bags are the major pollutant on shorelines.

During last year's cleanup of shores across the country, volunteers collected well over 270,000 cigarette butts, Solomon said.

That's two and a half times more than the next most common item, which was food wrappers, he said.

Solomon noted it takes anywhere from five to 15 years for the filters in the butts to break down, providing lots of time for clueless birds, fish and marine mammals to mistake them for food.

"Because there's no nutritional value, when an animal eats a cigarette butt or several cigarette butts, they feel full and can actually starve to death," he said.

Last year 50,000 volunteers removed almost 90 tonnes of garbage from streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. This year, organizers are anticipating about 70,000 volunteers will get involved.