Saturday, August 15, 2015


I walk to work in downtown Oakland, and occasionally I count the cigarette butts I see along the way. I usually stop when I hit 100. Sadly, that doesn’t take long at all.

Last week I heard the staff of the Lake Merritt/Uptown and Downtown Business Improvement Districts announce an innovative plan that could make a big dent in the number of cigarette butts that end up in Lake Merritt and the Bay. It would also transform these butts into useful objects such as park benches and plastic pallets.

Terracycle, the Canadian company that pioneered the process, doesn’t just collect and recycle cigarette butts: It but also provides free shipping and contributes to good causes. For every pound of butts collected, $1 is donated to the charity of the collector’s choice.

“Cigarette butts are one of the planet’s most ubiquitous waste streams,” according to the website. The company, which gets some funding from Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, boasts that “globally, we have collected 25 million butts since November 2012,” most of them from cities in Canada.

The process is pretty straightforward. First, a city signs up. Next, butts are collected, put into plastic bags and placed in a box. A free shipping label can then be downloaded to send off the butts. Finally, the account is credited. The rectangular receptacles, each of which can hold 700 butts, are pole mounted and lockable.

One year ago, New Orleans became the first U.S. city to sign up with Terracycle for a large-scale recycling effort of cigarette butts: 50 receptacles installed at downtown intersections.  Because of New Orleans’ extremely positive experience, the word got out to Oakland’s business improvement districts (BIDs).

Andrew Jones, who is spearheading the effort on behalf of Oakland’s BIDs for whom he works, hears from his cleaning crews who patrol these areas on a daily basis. They tell him that tens of thousands of butts are currently collected in plants, medians and every sidewalk nook and cranny, as well as in the popular Snow Park and Frank Ogawa Plaza. But it is at nighttime establishments that “a staggering amount” of butts are tossed on the pavement, he says.

Oakland plans on rolling out the new program by the end of September, installing 20 units at a cost of $50 each. The receptacles will be placed at restaurants, bars and clubs in the city’s burgeoning Oakland Central neighborhood.

Andrew acknowledges that some people will continue to toss their butts on the ground, whether from force of habit or indifference.

So does Andrew expect the program to succeed in Oakland? “I’m an optimistic pessimist,” he says. “It could end up being more trouble than it’s worth, but it will help me sleep at night, knowing we’re trying to reduce the amount of litter going down the drains and into the Bay.”  


C.J. Hirschfield has served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry.  C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

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