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City cigarette butt recycling scheme looks like a boondoggle

August 11, 2016

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A new thing has appeared about half to two-thirds of the way east along the south sidewalk of the 1400 block of West Broadway Avenue. I’m referring to the chromed-steel cigarette butt disposal tube newly bolted to the sidewalk beside the trash can at the 99 B-Line bus stop.

Some nicotine-addicted bus riders appear to at least be trying to bung their butts into this city-provided receptacle. This morning (August 11) I saw two or three cigarette butts littered around the base of the thing.

There are potentially a few things going against the success of the city’s locked ashtray in this location. Firstly, it faces stiff competition from the large, easier-to-use, sand-filled ashtray, conveniently located just steps away in front of the entrance to Joey on Broadway, a popular upscale watering hole.

Secondly, this is Fairview, not the Central Business District. As homeless smokers will tell you, the 1400 block of West Broadway Avenue is never exactly teeming with cigarette butt litter.

And thirdly, because it’s a heavily-trafficked bus stop and because of the aforementioned covered ashtray in front of the Joey bar, homeless smokers in the area frequently check the spot and remove any fat butts in order to recover the tobacco.

However, another binner tells me that the cigarette butt receptacle in the 1400 block (which turned up about four days ago) is one of several that has appeared in the South Granville area, each bolted down beside a city curbside trash container near a bus stop.

An unaccountable expansion of a failed recycling scheme

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How much does one of these costs and how many of them are being installed?

Back in 2013, the City of Vancouver, together with New Jersey-based recycling partner TerraCycle, launched the pilot cigarette butt recycling program downtown. At the time, being a non-smoking homeless person, I wrote on behalf of homeless smokers, arguing narrowly that any success the program enjoyed would come at the expense of the poorest smokers in Vancouver—the ones who largely smoke tobacco collected from discarded cigarette butts.

Now, nearly three years later, with the program clearly expanding beyond the downtown peninsula and south of False Creek, I’m wondering whether it has been a success. Where, I have to ask, are the published results from the original pilot program.

In 2013, the city spent $12,000 alone, just buying 100 simple, pole-mounted rectangular disposal receptacles from TerraCycle—are these all still in use downtown? Why is the new receptacle in the 1400 block of West Broadway Avenue a completely different, and much costlier-looking design?

I see huge costs and only questionable benefits

What a coincidence that cigarette butt plastic naturally occurs in fish!

How much, I have to ask, do each of these new heavy-duty chromed steel locking ashtrays cost? How many are being installed and where? And what will be the total cost of installation, not to mention the annual cost of regularly emptying them?

And what happened with the project’s original co-partner TerraCycle and the whole idea of recycling the butts?

The City of Vancouver’s undated cigarette butt recycling page on the web gives few details beyond saying that “recently” the city assumed full ownership of the project.

Also—without listing any dates, time frames or costs—the city says that the project has collected about 200 pounds, or roughly 200,000 cigarette butts. This quantity roughly represents the one year output of a little over 27 pack-a-day smokers.

The city has clearly not touched this page for at least a year or two as it still promises to produce a report on outcomes in 2015:

“We will continue to work with United We Can, EMBERS, and the four business improvement areas on the pilot project and will report on its outcome in winter 2015. The City is now moving to the next phase of the project based on lessons learned in recent months.”

Neither the United We Can bottle depot nor EMBERS, a Downtown Eastside development charity, has anything to do with cigarette butt recycling. In fact, beyond having the word “recycling” in the name of the project, there is no reference to a recycling partner or anything to say that any cigarette butts collected have or will be recycled.

Keeping the toxic butts out of the landfill and gainfully recycling them was a major focus of the original program. Now the city simply talks about the program as street cleaning.

Well, the city and/or the local business improvement area already employs street sweepers to daily sweep up what few cigarette butts there are in the 1400 block of West Broadway and along South Granville. And I know there is a small army of sweepers employed by the city in the Central Business Area.

In 2o14, the Georgia Straight reported that the pilot project was already proving something of a failure—that it had been fraught with unintended negative consequences, including exposing non-smokers to second-hand smoke and that the entire concept of TerraCycle’s cigarette butt recycling scheme had been funded and promoted by cigarette maker Imperial Tobacco.

And now the city is aggressively expanding the project.

With no evidence of any actual recycling occurring or proof of a worthwhile return against the undisclosed costs, it really appears that the three year cigarette butt recycling program has simply morphed into an expensive bureaucratic end in itself.

The political term for this is a “boondoggle”, which is commonly defined as work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value. Click the images to enlarge them.

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