Ottawa's cigarette butt waste program needs work, BIA says

The city program charged with cleaning up hundreds of thousands of cigarette butts tossed onto Ottawa streets every year is cumbersome and ineffective, according to the Bank Street BIA. And a city councillor agrees, saying it's likely time for a change.

'It all comes around to us in the end,' says Coun. David Chernushenko

The City of Ottawa estimates that about 780,000 butts are littered on Ottawa streets every day. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The city program charged with cleaning up hundreds of thousands of cigarette butts tossed onto Ottawa streets every year is cumbersome and ineffective, according to the Bank Street BIA.

And a city councillor agrees, saying it's likely time for a change.

In spite of the fact there are fewer smokers these days — and that a growing number of them are smoking paperless e-cigarettes — the waste from traditional cigarette butts is staggering.

Of the 2.6 million butts generated daily in Ottawa, city staff estimate about 780,000 of them end up littered on the ground every day. 

"It's hard to believe, but stand outside a Tim Hortons, or an office building, or in a parking lot, and count the piles of 10 to 500 [butts] that you'll see there," says Coun. David Chernushenko.

(The story continues below)


City's cigarette bins need work, BIA says

In 2014 the city bought 100 cigarette waste bins and gave them to Ottawa's 18 different business improvement areas, but some of the bins remain in storage and only five of the 18 BIAs are actually using them: Sparks Street Mall, Westboro Village, Somerset Chinatown, Vanier (Quarter Vanier) and Preston Street.

Christine Leadman, the Bank Street BIA's executive director, says the city's cigarette bin program has too many problems and restrictions.

The city's butt bins have to be fastened to the face of businesses and haven't been popular with many store owners, Leadman says.

Christine Leadman, executive director of the Bank Street Business Improvement Area, says the city's cigarette butt waste program needs work.

And because city bylaws require people to smoke nine metres away from bus stops, cigarette bins typically have to be placed nine metres away as well — meaning there's nowhere for butts to go for the many people who disobey the bylaw.

"People aren't going to walk nine metres to throw away their cigarette when they're standing in front of the bus stop," Leadman says.

"It's really challenging when you look at all the restrictions that exist when it comes to smoking. So how do you put something in place to accommodate the butts?"

The BIA opted to use CigBins instead of the city's bins. It's a service launched in 2014 by University of Ottawa students who manage the weekly pick-up of cigarette butts from their own curbside receptacles. Butts collected in the 12 Bank Street CigBins are then sold as bulk plastic to manufacturers who recycle them into shipping crates and plastic cartons.

'We had to go further'

In February, Chernushenko — himself a non-smoker — sought an explanation from staff about how cigarette butt waste is managed across the city, and he points out that Ottawa's 18 BIAs only manage a small fraction of Ottawa's streets.

"So far, the city has left [cigarette butt management] in the hands of the BIA. That's fine to a point, but only to a point," he says. "And then, not all BIAs have made this a priority. It seemed to me we had to go further."

This is not a BIA issue. This is a city issue.- Christine Leadman, executive director of the Bank Street BIA

Leadman agrees.

"This is not a BIA issue. This is a city issue," she says.

Chernushenko says he's considering directing city staff to suggest better receptacles to handle the littering.

The problem, he says, isn't just that each butt takes an estimated 15 years to break down — it's that butts typically contain filters made from cellulose acetate fibers that get loaded with toxins once the cigarettes have been smoked through them.

Nicotine, for example, is a powerful insecticide, and small quantities of it get trapped in filters. A study in Virginia determined the other compounds in discarded cigarette butts, including remnant tobacco, become biohazards to certain water fleas at the lower end of the aquatic food chain. 

Chernushenko compares the effect of rain washing through thousands of discarded butts and into sewers to the environmental risk presented by antiobiotics that accumulate in water systems.

"It all comes around to us in the end. So whatever we can do to keep chemicals out of our bodies and out of the ecosystem that don't belong there, we should be looking at," Chernushenko says.

Listen to an Ottawa Morning interview with Leadman here.


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