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Why I Sweep: Educating about cigarette butt pollution


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This is one in a series of guest blog posts about Riverkeeper Sweep, our annual day of service for the Hudson, involving more than 120 cleanups and planting projects on a single day. Be part of the next Sweep, Saturday, May 7, 2022 – Visit


One day as I was doing a garbage walk in Manhattan with my neighbor we were shocked to see the large number of cigarette butts on the sidewalk and street.

We consulted with Debby Lee Cohen about the butts. Debby Lee, like me, is a member of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board (SWAB) and she is the co-producer of the film Microplastic Madness. Debby Lee told us that butts are composed of a type of plastic that breaks down into microplastics, which contaminate our water, and is food for fish, birds, dogs, and rats. What’s more, cigarette butts contain heavy metals – lead, arsenic, and cadmium. For humans, such toxins have been found to damage young brains and cause cancer, skin lesions, and cardiovascular disease. The butts are the second most frequent category of waste found in river sweeps and number 4.5 trillion worldwide annually.

Wow, was our response. We must share this information with the public, and thus we began the NO BUTTS campaign. Our method is to select several city blocks in Manhattan where we can be easily seen picking up butts, holding the NO BUTTS sign, wearing a butts costume, and giving out pocket ashtrays as we tell smokers to leave their butts in the ashtray rather than drop them on the ground.

We publicized our events in several free venues, and attracted participants to join our butt collections. We gained the attention of WNYC reporter Rosemary Misdary, who prepared an episode and an article about the NO BUTTS campaign. Details of our NO BUTTS events and links to the article and WNYC episode can be found under resources in the website

We cleaned up the butts on certain days in certain places to divert them from the river and the ocean. However, since each day brings new butts, we need a way to eliminate the butts altogether. The New York State bill S1278 seeks to end the sale of single use filter cigarettes and e-cigarettes. The Manhattan SWAB is organizing like-minded environmental and health organizations to lobby NYS legislators to support this legislation.

My May 7 Riverkeeper Sweep project will begin in a heavily trafficked neighborhood in Washington Heights, Manhattan. At 10 a.m. we will meet at the northwest corner of Broadway and 165th Street by the Children’s Hospital. Wearing gloves, we will walk west along 165th Street, downhill to Riverside Park. Along the way we will collect cigarette butts and vape waste and distribute pocket ashtrays to smokers. Thus we will reduce the number of butts and vape waste entering our drains and reaching the river. We also will distribute information about the bill to end the sale of single use filter cigarettes and e-cigarettes (S1278 and A4308). We will be holding our NO BUTTS sign and wearing the Butt costume. We welcome you to join us.

Sign up for the Washington Heights project here. Visit to explore the list of 100 cleanups happening May 7, 2022, from New York City to the Adirondacks.

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