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Volunteers collect cigarette butts for Pearl District recycling effort

The Cigarette Waste Recycling Program helps keep streets a little cleaner; butts are shipped to New Jersey for recycling.

PORTLAND, Ore. — John Gillette is a retired psychiatrist originally from California. He has called Portland home for 8 years. He said he hates to see all the litter and cigarette butts in his neighborhood and resolved to do something about it.

"In retirement, it kind of takes a while to figure out what you’re going to do and how you could be helpful," said Gillette. He figured out a way to help one day when he stepped out of his condo in the Pearl District. "I walk around in the neighborhood to exercise, hike and stuff," said Gillette " it's really irksome to see all the litter and the cigarette butts."

To help solve the problem, Gillette joined the Cigarette Waste Recycling Program, an initiative by the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, started by Dave Mitchell. 

"The program is designed to collect as many cigarette butts as we can, using 65 receptacles that are attached to parking poles," explained Mitchell. He put up cigarette disposal boxes around the neighborhood in 2019 where smokers can safely discard the waste. 

The volunteers, mostly retirees, spread out in different parts of the Pearl equipped with plastic bags and gloves to empty the receptacles every few weeks. It takes Gillette over an hour to complete his runs and collect about two pounds of butts.

Credit: CK
Pearl volunteers have collected over 100,000 cigarette butts in the past year

They've collected over 100,000 butts in the past year that otherwise would have ended up on the street or in a storm drain, then the river. The cigarette litter can leach toxic chemicals and contaminate water.

"This is our little way of trying to make life a little better for the environment and I think we're having an impact," said Mitchell.

The impact has a national reach. The collected butts are shipped to a plant in New Jersey called TerraCycle. The company recycles the plastic waste in them and partners with companies to turn them into new products like lawn furniture. 

For John Gillette, the repurposing of the butts is one more reason to keep up his patrols in the Pearl. "The pleasure of when you walk - to see the street looks clean, knowing that you're preventing toxic pollution, that's a positive also."

Visit The Pearl Neighborhood Association if you’re interested in volunteer opportunities.

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