There butt for the grace of receptacles...
On a brisk November morning, David Mitchell and John Wertzler are doing their part to stop the spread of one of the greatest environmental threats in Portland — cigarette butts.
Cigarette butts are nonbiodegradable and loaded with toxic chemicals generated during smoking. They include nicotine and heavy metals. Up to an estimated 6 trillion cigarettes are smoked around the world every year and two-thirds of them are discarded into the environment, where they threaten people and wildlife.
"Cigarette butts don't break down easily and are toxic for years," said Mitchell, standing next to The Armory Theater at Northwest Davis Street and 11th Avenue.
So together with Wertzler, Mitchell attached a small metal box to a Portland Bureau of Transportation sign post. It was a receptacle for butts from TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based company that recycles them into safe consumer products, such as plastic pallets and flower pots. The ash and tobacco are separated out and composted in a specialized process.
Mitchell and Wertzler are volunteer members of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, which has launched an initiative to install 105 of the boxes throughout the district. Association volunteers will empty them out and ship the contents to the company, ensuring the discarded butts will never harm the environment.
The visible sides of the 18-by-4-by-4-inch box are covered with bright red decals announcing its purpose. After the installation, Wertzler christened it with a few butts picked up from the sidewalk.
Mitchell, the program leader and former chairman of the neighborhood association's Livability and Safety Committee, first began pursuing the project three years ago. A nonsmoker, he was increasingly appalled by the butts he saw piling up on streets and sidewalks throughout the district where he lives and wanted to do something about it.
Researching the issue, he discovered that other cities already were working with TerraCycle. Pittsburgh has installed 200 of the receptacles and is shipping 150 pounds of butts to the company every week, said Mitchell, a retired health care consultant.
Launching the program involved more work, including contacting several city bureaus to figure out with whom to partner. The neighborhood association raised $5,500 to buy the first 60 boxes and mounting hardware. Contributors include neighborhood association donors, the R2C Group, Judie Dunken Real Estate, and the Northwest Neighborhoods Parks and Recreation Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.
The installations started a few weeks ago and will be completed soon. If all goes well, fundraising will begin for the remaining 45 boxes. Donors will have the opportunity to have their names on box decals.
The 60 tamperproof and fire-resistant boxes are being installed in targeted locations that have a high concentration of cigarette butts, including entrances to apartment buildings, office buildings and bars.
Mitchell personally walked the streets over the past three years to identify the locations, which he has marked on a map of the district. In one location, Mitchell and his wife collected 1,500 discarded butts in one hour.
"It's very labor intensive to pick up cigarette butts. It's much harder than other litter," Mitchell said.
The boxes will be emptied regularly by volunteers with the neighborhood association's Clean Streets program, which was formed to pick up litter in the district six months ago because of concerns about livability.
Boxes in one part of the district will be emptied by employees of Clean and Safe, a program affiliated with the Portland Business Association that helps clean up downtown streets.
Other project partners include the R2C Group, an advertising firm in the district that has sponsored 10 boxes and is developing a donated public awareness campaign that will stress the environmental hazards of cigarette butts. It will include posters and targeted social media advertising.
"R2C Group fully supports PDNA's efforts to remove toxic cigarette butts from our streets and our parks. We're eager to utilize our advertising expertise to communicate the benefits of this program, illustrate where to find the disposal bins, and how to use them," said Michelle Cardinal, CEO and co-founder of R2C Group.
Another partner is Central City Concern, a nonprofit social service agency, which operates residential drug and alcohol treatment programs in the district where clients frequently smoke on the sidewalks.
The program is the most recent of several efforts to better clean up the city. Mayor Ted Wheeler proclaimed Portland should be "the cleanest and most livable city in the United States" in September 2018. He subsequently announced the "Keep it Pretty, Rose City" program that includes the purchase and installation of large-capacity garbage cans throughout town that are emptied more frequently than before.
Mitchell applauds the new cans, but says smokers know not to throw their butts into them.
"I've talked to many smokers during the course of researching this, and they know they're a fire hazard," Mitchell said.
Wheeler has endorsed the butts project, and so has Commissioner Nick Fish.
Other cities already working with TerraCycle include Seattle, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Mitchell said he hopes other neighborhoods in Portland will be inspired to launch similar programs.
"Cigarette butts are a problem everywhere," Mitchell said.
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