Kicking Plastic’s Butt!

A campaign to end cigarette butt litter on Toronto’s waterfront.

In Toronto it’s hard to walk down the street without noticing some form of litter, which is usually made of plastic. But not all litter is as noticeable as a water bottle, or a chip bag. Cigarette filters (a.k.a. cigarette butts), for example, tend to blend into the background, likely because they are among the most common types of litter globally. Cigarette butts are also plastic – made from small semi-synthetic fibers and among the most ubiquitous form of plastic pollution in Toronto.  Not only are they our #1 item at nearly every litter cleanup, we also consistently find them in our trash traps (i.e., Seabins and LittaTraps) along the waterfront. 

Cigarette butts end up in the environment for a variety of reasons. Often, butts are littered because most people don’t realize that they are made out of non-degradable plastic, and thus don’t consider them litter. However, the truth is that butts are made of plastic, and the chemicals that leach from these discarded cigarette butts can harm wildlife, particularly aquatic wildlife, putting Lake Ontario species at risk.

In Summer 2022, our team started an arts-based educational campaign, led by the U of T Trash Team’s Arts and Visual Communications Specialist, Emily Chudnovsky, to reduce plastic pollution from cigarette butts. The crux of our campaign, Kicking Plastic’s Butt!, was to increase awareness that cigarette butt litter is plastic pollution. We had an inkling that most people were not aware of this fact, and we hoped that increased awareness would reduce the common behaviour of littering butts.

The project began with a series of trips to collect data on cigarette butt litter. We added this scientific component to quantify the local problem and track it alongside our educational campaign to measure our efficacy. If our campaign was working, we predicted we would see less butts on the ground during our campaign relative to before. On day 1, our team counted cigarette butt litter along the waterfront, and even we were shocked by what we found. We look at litter more than the average person, but still 662 cigarette butts in a 50 m x 10 m area (think the size of an Olympic swimming pool) was astounding! Butts were camouflaged, hiding between the cracks in the sidewalk, scattered under benches, and piled up in the soil at the bases of trees and in shrubs.

The team set out to reduce the number of littered cigarette butts through educational signage and video. With an interactive video, in collaboration with The Water Brothers, we asked the public what they knew about cigarette butts. Although every single person agreed they would not litter a plastic item – like a bottle or straw – all but one did not know that cigarette butts contained plastic. Many confessed they thought they were more natural, and thus biodegradable.

The Water Brothers interview community members © Chelsea Rochman

Emily also put out a call to the U of T Trash Team volunteers to submit illustrations that would inform the public that cigarette butt litter was plastic litter – and thus plastic pollution. The call yielded three different art pieces that were displayed as posters in streetcar shelters at Queens Quay and Lower Spadina – a very busy intersection on the waterfront. Each one was unique and eye-catching, and was intended to inform the community about plastic pollution. The posters stayed up for just over a month.

Two of the artists who created those striking images shared their experience.

“I immediately thought about making a poster with anime characters when I was presented with the task of communicating a story about how cigarette butts are plastic. This is because I watch a lot of anime and read a lot of manga, so naturally I designed the characters to be that way. The main character in my poster has bright orange hair, which I thought would draw attention to him – this approach of using eye-catching, bright colours has been taken when designing many anime protagonists, such as for the Mangas, Naruto and Bleach. This was a way to draw attention to our poster and our overall campaign on cigarette butts. I broke the story into three frames and ordered it the way a Manga would, and I also added words in capital letters to represent sounds.
Alice Zhu

When creating the preliminary draft of my comic, I was more focused on how the poster can be more attention-grabbing. If you have walked by many TTC stations, you would see (especially around Bloor street) and most likely pay attention to the handful of fashion advertisements. I believe that aesthetics and a little exaggeration can be a great way to make people look. Thus I decided to make my characters varied, fashionable, and cool. However, when people continue to look, the message would start to reveal through the contrast of how fashionable they are, but funnily smoking out of a bottle, a plastic fork, and a straw, and by repeating it, it reinforces the message that cigarettes are plastic. It was a challenging process to integrate the main message of cigarettes as plastic into a brief comic, but it was also fun and I love how the posters turned out.”
Chelsea Wang

Was our campaign effective?

Before the July campaign, we collected data on two separate days – once in April and again in June. During the campaign, we collected data on two separate days in July. Each day we ran six transects and counted butts in each one. Before the campaign, we collected an average of 15.5 butts per m2. After the campaign, we collected 12.4 butts per m2.  Due to the success of our campaign, we continue today.

These posters, along with baskets made with the collected cigarette butts by Emily, are publicly displayed in the Toronto Patagonia store window until mid-January 2023 and our campaign to reduce cigarette butt pollution does not stop here. Our campaign will be displayed at Ripley’s Aquarium later this year. Next summer, we plan to add cigarette butt receptacles in the city alongside the posters to see if added receptacles for proper disposal further reduce litter.

Through an artistic approach, alongside the collection of scientific data, we aim to make a difference regarding the state of plastic pollution in our city. Our work shows that scientists and artists can cross boundaries and work together to create meaningful change. While cigarette butt litter is certainly a daunting problem, there’s still a lot we can do to make a difference and keep thousands of cigarette butts from ending up in the lake. So next time you’re out for a walk around the city, keep an eye out for cigarette butts!

For more information on the project, click here. Help us spread the word: join us for litter cleanups, or follow our journey on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.

A handful of cigarette filters collected during transects © Mira Ghosh

Leave a Reply