Almost 7,000 cigarette butts were found in Gainesville’s downtown area during a one-day scan in May 2013.
Fifteen months and 27 cigarette receptacles later, the number has fallen to fewer than 2,700 littered remains.
Although the national percentage of smokers has been consistently declining, Gina Hawkins attributes the local decrease to the black octagon-shaped containers now bolted to sidewalks downtown.
Hawkins is the executive director of Keep Alachua County Beautiful (KACB) and runs the Cigarette Litter Prevention Program. The program follows the “Don’t Flick It” mantra, and focuses on the cleanup of cigarette butts — the most frequently littered item in the U.S.
The program has been around for a decade, but it wasn’t until recently that significant progress was made, Hawkins said. Keep America Beautiful has supported the chapter, awarding them a $2,000-grant in 2012 and 2013. The grants have funded the installation of cigarette receptacles downtown.
“You will see those along the edge of the sidewalk where people typically throw cigarette butts when they’re coming from parking areas,” Hawkins said.
Volunteers have measured the use of receptacles by counting the number of cigarette butts found before and after they are installed.
Ken McGurn, downtown developer and a member on the program’s stakeholder board, said he has seen a positive response from workers in the area.
“In Union Street, I’ve seen it work tremendously,” McGurn said. “You have people who come outside, take a smoke break [because all of our buildings are smoke-free], and they would generally toss the cigarette butts on the ground. When the rain came, it would wash them into the gutters and wash it out to Paynes Prairie.”
Since the receptacles have been installed, McGurn and his co-workers, who are very involved with cleanup efforts, have seen a significant decrease in cigarette litter at the prairie.
Unfortunately, the receptacles have been repeated targets for the homeless.
“One of the sadder parts of this program is that we don’t have to clean out the receptacles because the cigarette butts are harvested by the homeless,” Hawkins said. “We’ve never had to empty [them], which is a pretty sad state of affairs.”
The cigarette butts are taken out of the containers and the leftover tobacco is used to re-roll new cigarettes, she said, adding this is a well-known occurrence in the downtown area.
Morgan Kalish, a downtown worker and smoker, said he hasn’t seen this happen, but he knows that it occurs frequently. A former employee of Mark’s Prime Steakhouse on Southeast Second Avenue, he said people would raid the restaurant’s outdoor ashtrays every night.
“They would take the whole thing and dump it on the ground and go through them,” Kalish said. “There was always a big pile of cigarette butts on the floor the next day.”
He said he used to re-roll cigarettes when he was younger, a process he called “pretty gross.”
Today he makes an effort to dispose of his cigarettes in a receptacle if he sees one nearby.
Hawkins said she tries to purchase receptacles that can be secured and not opened easily.
KACB leads volunteer cleanup events downtown after every large event, such as Fest, or the Downtown Festival and Art Show that took place this past weekend.
“We hope to expand the program to the Midtown area next year,” she said.
Those looking to get involved can sign up at Kacb.org.