Telling people to stop throwing their cigarette butts on the ground will not make people stop throwing their cigarette butts on the ground, according to Pittsburgh’s top anti-litter expert
“We could lecture people about cigarettes all day long, and that won’t do anything,” says Christopher Mitchell, the anti-litter specialist for the city of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works. “But if we change the environment they’re working in and they’re living in, that’s going to have an effect, even if it’s small.”
Thus, the latest initiative in the fight against litter in Pittsburgh: Ballot Bins that ask people to vote with their cigarette butts to answer yinzer-themed questions. Is it soda or pop? Washington or Worshington? Are pierogies tastier when prepared soft or crispy?
The department used Keep America Beautiful’s 2021 Cigarette Litter Prevention Program grant for $15,000 to obtain 35 bins to curb tossed cigarettes, which the department says accounts for about 30% of the city’s litter. The United Kingdom-based companies Hubbub and Common Works collaborate to sell the product around the globe and say the bins have been shown to reduce cigarette butt litter by 46%.
The department has already chosen partners to entrust many of the bins but sees these 35 bins as a trial run, with more possibly on the way. Organizations can apply for a bin through an online form. The questions come on removable plates that can be swapped out for other questions, and the city will provide one plate of the partner’s choosing. Partners can choose to swap out the questions, but the bins remain property of the city of Pittsburgh, which expects partners to follow guidelines like forgoing brand names and the names of real people.
Bins are fully approved to be installed in the Strip District, Lawrenceville, and Mount Washington, with more neighborhoods pending.
There are already two bins Downtown, one outside each entrance of the City-County Building, with the questions “What’s more ‘Pittsburgh’: Fries on a sandwich or Fries on a salad?” and “When the ground is icy, is it: Slippy or Slippery?” Last week, “fries on a salad” seemed to have a distinct advantage, but the battle between “Slippy” and “Slippery” appeared neck-and-neck.
The idea had been swirling around the department for more than a year, according to Mitchell. After obtaining the funding last year, the department ordered the bins and started making relationships with organizations around the city to house them, a process made even longer when the bins got held up at the border for months.
“The wheels of local government turn very slowly … it was a very long road to get from here to there, but I’m used to it at this point,” Mitchell says, laughing.
Mitchell used Reddit, donning his persona AntiLitterPGH, to ask residents for suggestions of questions to use. Some suggestions that didn’t make the cut likely proved a bit too controversial for the city, including “The aftermath of a Kenny Chesny concert vs. the aftermath of the St. Patrick’s Day parade” from user toxicshock999 and “What’s the speed limit on residential streets? A) 25mph B) 55mph” from user arguchik.
Efforts like the Ballot Bins represent one of many from the department to combat litter. Mitchell says they like focusing on a series of different, little initiatives.
“We always want to think of every single thing we do as maybe a fraction of a fraction of a percent of a difference of what’s going on in our city, and then we build on that,” Mitchell says. “Constantly, let’s do another fraction of a fraction of a percent based on targeting very small things.”
It’s conceivable someone may walk by one of these neat bins and be tempted to smoke a cigarette to be able to participate, something Mitchell says he’s considered.
“We definitely don’t want to promote smoking at all, but the biggest thing is we’ve got to get it off the ground,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell has a suggestion for non-smokers excited by the idea of placing a cigarette butt into one of these bins.
“Look on the ground,” Mitchell says. “I bet you’re going to find one that’s not too far away.”