Reviews mixed for cigarette recycling program

Six months after launching the world’s first cigarette recycling program, proponents have mixed opinions about whether the project is a success.

The City of Vancouver launched the cigarette recycling project last November in partnership with Terracycle and United We Can.

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“As far as we’re concerned, the program has been a huge success,” said Gerry Martin, general manager at United We Can.  “People started using the receptacles right away. Basically the receptacles went up and the next day there were cigarette butts.”

Receptacles at bus stops and sidewalk corners at intersections see the most use, according to Martin.  

Others are less confident about the program’s success.

“I certainly wouldn’t put it in the failure section yet, but it isn’t a qualified success either,” said Charles Gauthier, president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA).

DVBIA has been keeping track of the number of cigarette butts on the ground in order to assess whether people are using the cigarette receptacles or not. The results have been mixed.

“In some cases, there are fewer cigarette butts now than before the receptacles were installed, which is what we expected,” said Gauthier. “But in other cases, there are actually more cigarette butts.”

Gauthier has enlisted the help of a social marketing consulting company to better understand smoker behaviour.

“It’s still early days for us and we’ve been doing an evaluation. We need to better understand why some smokers are choosing not to use them in some cases,” he said.

Thiago Martinelli, originally from Brazil, has lived in Vancouver for two years and said he sometimes forgets to use the cigarette receptacles.

“I hadn’t heard of recycling cigarette butts before I came to Vancouver, but I saw them and so I use it when I see it,” he said. “It’s hard because for smokers, we have short breaks you know? Sometimes there’s no time to look for somewhere to throw away your cigarette.”

Martinelli admits that it’s all about copying other people’s behaviour.

“But I’ve seen people using them and so because I felt bad, I started using them too.”

Martin is hopeful that the city will expand the cigarette recycling program.

“Then we’d definitely be hiring people specifically for collecting cigarette butts,” he said.

United We Can is best known as a recycling depot for Vancouver Downtown Eastside binners and provides the workers for the cigarette recycling program. Two to three workers collect cigarette butts from the bins every couple of weeks. The workers are paid a rate above minimum wage. The employees are rotated with the workforce at the United We Can bottle depot.

About 95 per cent of the employees at United We Can are from the Downtown Eastside.

“Many people who work here probably wouldn’t be able to find work if they didn’t work here,” said Martin.

Martin has not heard of any plans to expand the program so far, but he is hopeful.

“I have not heard about any expansion. But I know that the city of Vancouver has been pleased with the results.”

Workers have collected more than 130 pounds of cigarette butts from bins since they were installed in November.  

There are 110 cigarette recycling receptacles in downtown Vancouver.

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