Hungry for Cigarette Butts This clever sculpture educates and generates money for charity
by Abby Cunningham
San Rafael CA - A late-summer breeze feathered its way through downtown San Rafael as locals meandered on Fourth Street in search of dinner, drinks and maybe a good movie. A woman paused for a moment of quiet reflection, and took a long drag off her cigarette. But instead of snuffing out the butt with the toe of her high-heeled shoe, she walked over to a seven-foot sculpture and stuffed it into the bull’s eye.
“Every little bit helps, and I try to do my part,” she said.
Cigarette Eater Meter, was commissioned by San Rafael Clean and created by artists Ventana Amico and Enrique Goldenberg. Its goal: to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of the 10,000 cigarette butts that land on San Rafael streets every three to four days.
The metallic sculpture looks something like a giant weighing scale you might find at an amusement park. It is colorfully painted with pictures that show how cigarette butts travel from sidewalk to drain to water systems. Pull-up panels ask thought-provoking questions and give surprising answers.
The sculpture works sort of like a parking meter, except that money comes out and goes to charity. For every butt deposited into the meter, two cents are given to a local charity — St. Vincent de Paul Society. When the dial reaches 100,000 a ma-tching grant will kick in another $2,000.
Smoking in the streets has been glamorized for decades, particularly in Hollywood films, as a kind of free-spirited gesture of American independence. Today we know that smoking is bad for us, but most of us don’t know how harmful cigarette butts are to wildlife and the environment.
What starts out as grimy street litter eventually finds its way into storm drains, creeks and the nearby San Francisco Bay. Cigarette filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate that doesn’t biodegrade. Birds and fish eat them and eventually starve to death because their stomachs are full of plastic. To make matters worse, one unfiltered cigarette butt has the toxicity to kill half of the fish in a one-liter container of water, according to a recent study by San Diego State University.
Fortunately though, the City of San Rafael doesn’t sit idly by while all those cigarette butts wash down the drain. Last year, San Rafael Clean, a partnership between various city organizations, as well as local businesses and residents, started a program called “Bounty for Butts.”
Diners at the St. Vincent de Paul Society dining room were invited to participate in a “buy-back” program where they received one dollar for every ounce of collected cigarette litter.
The program was enormously successful. In the first two weeks alone, participants cleared about 90,000 cigarette butts from the streets while generating much-needed income. In addition to the clean-up, organizers at San Rafael Clean decided to amp up education to stop litter at its source.
The Cigarette Eater Meter stands as a shining example of how one city engages its residents in a creative way to solve a collective problem. And although some of the Golden State’s nonsmokers would like to blame those who do, the fact remains that loose cigarette butts are everyone’s business, and everyone can do something to help. If you see a loose butt, pop it in the trash. Or better yet, bring a Cigarette Eater Meter to your city. If you want to heal the Earth, the time is now and the place is right beneath your feet.
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Posted Nov 2013
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