Cast Your Ballot with “Butts”: A New Approach to Cigarette Butt Litter Reduction

Research Reports

Litter is a persistent challenge in Nova Scotia that has significant environmental, economic, and health impacts. Recognizing that litter is a key issue in our province, Divert NS completed a roadside litter audit in 2021 to assess what materials are being littered on our roadsides. Findings from the audit show that cigarette butts are the number one piece of small litter found on roadsides, accounting for 32% of all small litter collected.  The audit highlighted the need for new strategies to tackle cigarette butt litter. 

A common misconception about cigarette butts is that they are made entirely of paper that will easily biodegrade. Unfortunately for the environment, this is not true. Cigarette butts contain plastic that contribute to micro-plastic pollution in our environment. Further, cigarette butts can take up to a decade to decompose! 

Following the roadside audit, Divert NS hired Davis Pier Consulting to conduct behavioural research on litter. This research provided insights into litter behaviour, helped identify successful litter reduction strategies, and potential interventions to reduce litter in Nova Scotia. 

In 2023, Divert NS partnered with Halifax Regional Municipality Solid Waste Resources (HRM SWR) to develop a litter intervention focused on cigarette butt litter. A key intervention outlined in the Davis Pier behavioural research was the use of interactive cigarette butt receptacles, which can include voting systems, music, or lights. The goal of interactive receptacles is to create interest and incentive for cigarette users to utilize the receptacles instead of the ground when disposing of cigarette butts. As a result of the research provided by Davis Pier, Divert NS purchased four interactive “ballot box” cigarette butt receptacles with built-in voting systems to place at existing designated smoking areas within HRM. In addition to removing cigarette butts from the ground, Halifax Solid Waste Educator Ally Chant says, “I hope that this intervention helps to raise awareness that cigarette butts are litter.”

HRM SWR placed the “ballot boxes” at the Alderney Ferry Terminal, Sackville Public Library, and on Argyle Street. There were also control sites located at Alderney Library, Spring Garden/Grafton Street, and Argyle Street. Both the intervention sites and control sites were monitored regularly for usage. The “ballot boxes” displayed hot topic questions such as “Do pineapples belong on pizza?” and cigarette smokers had the opportunity to weigh in by placing their butt in the ‘Yes’ column or the ‘No’ column. “It has been interesting to see what questions trigger smokers to not litter. We do know that smokers in HRM don’t like pineapple on pizza,” says Chant. 

Preliminary intervention data shows that in the areas with the interactive receptacles, less cigarette butts were found littered on the ground. This positive result is an encouraging indicator of the effectiveness of the intervention. Next steps for the project include continued monitoring and a social media awareness campaign led by HRM SWR. Kathryn Bremner, Acting Director of Programs and Development shared that this study “presents an opportunity to learn lessons that could be applied to future litter campaigns across the province.”

Divert NS continues to fund various litter interventions across the province based on the behavioural research conducted by Davis Pier. As a result of the positive results from the HRM SWR intervention, the “ballot box” cigarette bins study will be replicated in Cape Breton Regional Municipality. “We look forward to seeing the positive ripple effect of these interventions and we hope that they lead to lasting behaviour change,” says Bremner.