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Portland Tries New Way to Keep Cigarette Butts Off City Streets

Patty Wight

They're on beaches. In sidewalk cracks. Next to gutters. They're cigarette butts, and they're the most commonly picked-up item in beach and community clean-ups worldwide.

The city of Portland is hoping to put a local dent in the problem. About five dozen cigarette trash receptacles - called "Sidewalk Buttlers" - have been installed around the city. it's the latest attempt to tackle what some say is the last acceptable form of littering.

Taking a smoke break on a downtown Portland sidewalk, Gary Winward admits that when he finishes A cigarette, he doesn't always look for a trash can to dispose of the butt.

"Honestly, not really, no. But if there is one around I'll use it," he says. "But no, I just basically flick it on the ground."

Winward, like a lot of people, just doesn't really consider small cigarette butts trash. "It's not like I'm throwing trash all over the ground or anything like that," he says. "That would be wrong. It's just cigarette butts. The rain takes care of it, and usually they filter down into the sewer system. So it's no big deal."

It actually is a big deal, says the Natural Resources Council of Maine's Sarah Lakeman. She says cigarette butts are a significant source of litter.

"They are made of non-biodegradable plastic and contain over 400 toxic chemicals that persist in our environment when wind and rain sweeps them into the storm drains that enter Casco Bay," she says.

To stem the tide of cigarette butts sweeping city streets, sidewalks, and local waterways, about 65 so-called "Sidewalk Buttlers" have been installed in downtown Portland. They're light blue cylinders about as wide as your arm - but not as long - and attached to things like light poles. A coin-sized hole near the enclosed top is just big enough to drop butts in but keep other trash out.

Credit Patty Wight / MPBN
Left to right, Portland City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, Mike Roylos, owner of the Spartan Grill and creator of Buttlers, the city of Portland's Troy Moon and NRCM's Sarah Lakeman, at a press conference Thursday.

Mike Roylos created them. He's the owner of the Spartan Grill restaurant in downtown Portland.

"This is like the Yucca Mountain of cigarette butts: Butts go in, but they never come out," he says. "It doesn't leak. It doesn't get through the environment. Casco Bay is much nicer because of it."

The Buttlers were purchased by the city and local businesses at about $60 a piece. Roylos self-financed a trial run of seven Buttlers last year, and collected about one five-gallon bucket of litter per receptacle. The butts are shipped at no cost to a company called TerraCycle, which converts them into shipping pallets, railroad ties, and benches.

"It's not perfect, but it will help," says Dr. Thomas Novotny, a professor at San Diego State University and president of the Cigarette Pollution Project. He says studies have shown that a majority of smokers still drop their butts on the ground even when near a receptacle. Novotny says the problem needs multiple strategies.

"As with so many other environmental pollutants, it's much better to try an upstream approach. Everything from used motor oil, tires, electronics, paint, etcetera, have been addressed as a producer responsibility," Novotny says.

Novotny says Maine enacted a producer responsibility law in 2010 that would likely allow such requirements for discarded cigarettes. But at the local level, Mike Roylos is confident his Sidewalk Buttlers will make a difference, and hopes they'll be adopted by other cities and states.