Kicking Plastic’s Butt!

Cigarette butts are plastic pollution.

Cigarette butts are one of the most discarded objects found in our environment. Though most of us are aware that throwing a plastic straw or bottle on the ground is problematic, very few people realize that discarded cigarette butts are plastic. Within each cigarette there is a filter, and that filter contains plastic.

Detail of cigarette butts collected during May 2022 transects. © Mira Ghosh

Project Overview

Both our Fighting Floatables Trapping Trash program and local cleanups demonstrate the prevalence of cigarette butts in the environment, and inspired our team to begin a science- and art- based campaign aimed at preventing and reducing cigarette butt litter.

  • Phase 1.0: In 2022, our campaign ran during the implementation of trash traps along the Toronto waterfront, with the aim to divert cigarette butts from waterways and help us quantify our impact.
  • Phase 2.0: In 2023 the campaign will be led in St. James Town.

This project aims to educate the public that cigarette butt litter is plastic litter and change behaviour to reduce the amount of cigarette butt litter.

If you wouldn’t throw a plastic bottle on the ground, then you shouldn’t throw a cigarette butt on the ground – in order to kick plastic’s butt, we must kick the habit of littering cigarette butts.

Our Interdisciplinary Approach

Our campaign employs an interdisciplinary approach to increasing waste literacy using multiple types of visual arts, trash capture technology, and scientific research. 

Visual Arts

Volunteer-illustrated Educational Posters

Our educational posters feature illustrations by U of T Trash Team volunteers. In the summer of 2022 they were displayed at prominent transit shelters at Queen’s Quay and Lower Spadina and will move to new locations as the campaign continues.

Design Concept: Three versions of the poster were created with images to depict people smoking, however, instead of holding cigarettes they are holding other single-use plastic items that we typically associate with plastic pollution. The smokers then throw these items on the ground, littering them in the same way they would a cigarette butt.

The power of this poster is the absurdity of littering these large plastic items – and draws a connection between littering more widely known plastic items and cigarette butts. Through art, we aim to increase waste literacy on plastic pollution.

Public Engagement through Video with The Water Brothers

We collaborated with The Water Brothers on an interactive video, interviewing community members using a series of questions which centre around public understanding of different types of plastic products, littering, and the connection between plastic pollution and cigarette butts. Our goal was to engage in a light-hearted, yet impactful conversation on plastic waste, and in turn, draw attention to the misconceptions that exist regarding cigarette butts. We want to share the message that if you wouldn’t throw a plastic bottle on the ground, you shouldn’t throw a cigarette butt on the ground.


Our resident Sculpture Artist Emily Chudnovsky kept littered cigarette butts collected by the U of T Trash Team to quantify the impact of our campaign. Using the filters of cigarette butts as a material, Chudnovsky created a series of baskets which explored the deceptively organic quality of cigarette butts, while also considering the overlooked role of ‘picking up’ that baskets enact. Cigarette butts were also donated by local NGO, A Greener Future, from their annual Butt Blitz cleanup event.

© Jack McCombe

Scientific Research to Measure our Success

To measure the effectiveness of our campaigns we quantify cigarette butt litter before and during using quantitative transects (our volunteers conducted standing stock surveys of littered cigarette butts along the waterfront using a modified NOAA protocol), LittaTraps in nearby storm drains, and additional trash trap collection devices.

Phase 1.0: On the waterfront we observed a decrease in the amount of butts during our campaign, which suggests that an interdisciplinary approach to increasing waste literacy works! 

Phase 1.0: Quantification of cigarette butt litter before and after transect and LittaTrap collection.

Phase 2.0: In 2023, our campaign continues in St. James Town neighbourhood in partnership with Community Matters Toronto. Our educational posters will be displayed around the community and we will present at various community events to engage with the public. 

In addition, we are installing six receptacles for cigarette butt recycling to raise awareness of and increase the convenience of proper cigarette butt disposal.

To determine whether our campaign helps reach our goal of reducing cigarette butt litter, we will quantify the litter in areas around the community before and after receptacle installation. We will also quantify the amount of butts discarded into each receptacle.

Kicking Plastic’s Butt! 1.0 was led by Emily Chudnovsky, a visual artist and the Art and Visual Communications Specialist for the University of Toronto Trash Team. She holds a Master of Fine Art from the Glasgow School of Art and an undergraduate combined Honours degree from the University of King’s College in Contemporary Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies. In Emily’s artistic practice she uses waste-materials to build sculpture-based public installations.

Kicking Plastic’s Butt! 2.0 is is led by Mary Long, a member of the Rochman Lab and the University of Toronto Trash Team. She is working towards an Honours BSc at the University of Toronto, studying Biology & Global Health. Previously, she has helped collect and characterize plastic pollution in the Don River, and she is also a research assistant with the Fighting Floatables program.

For more information, please contact Mary Long or Chelsea Rochman.

This project is supported by Community Matters Toronto.