Students to clean up city’s cigarette butts

Moving smokers outside has worsened the city’s problem with cigarette butt litter, but a group of graduate students thinks they might have an answer

Anti-smoking efforts that have forced smokers outside have exacerbated the problem of the indiscriminate tossing of cigarette butts. The volume of cigarette filters littering streets and sidewalks has increased 45 percent since indoor smoking bans began to take hold in 2007, according to the City Council.

Cigarette butts are now the largest source of litter in the city, and although they take up less volume than things like bottles, pizza boxes and fast food wrappers, they more than make up for the difference in their sheer numbers. Of every five pieces of trash clogging the streets, four are tossed butts. Their small size actually makes them tougher to deal with than the bigger items of trash that can be picked up by street sweepers. Cigarette butts often need to be plucked by hand from between paving stones.

“We have calculated that every piece of waste that has to be picked up by an employee costs the city two kroner,” Kim Hjerrild, head of the city’s sanitation division, told Berlingske newspaper.

The city is now working with students from a summer programme for graduate students run by the University of Copenhagen, the Technical University of Denmark, Copenhagen Business School and Roskilde University. The students are using their combined skills in disciplines like design, biology, computer science and landscape architecture to look for possible solutions to the growing butt problem.

"We do not expect a total solution,” Jacob Kastrup Haagensen, the city’s manger on the project, told Berlingske. “We do hope to get some good ideas that we can move forward with."

It is unlikely the students will be able to take their cue from the natural world, since nothing exists in nature that is remotely similar to cigarette filters, which are made of nylon, crammed with toxins and can take eight years to decompose.

Having smokers switch to unfiltered brands or putting a deposit on filters are both undesirable solutions, Hjerrild said. “We cannot have kids going around collecting cigarette filters for money for heaven’s sake,” he said.

The students are focusing on the idea that people only toss things that have no value, and they are looking at possible recycling avenues for cigarette filters that may encourage smokers to toss their butts in to bins, even though they have thus far seemed reluctant to use outdoor ashtrays.

Hjerrild also cautioned those that think they are helping by tossing their butts into the sewers. He said they have been known to clog up the city’s drains and water purification equipment.