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The City of Vancouver is handing out pocket cigarette-butt holders in a bid to cut down on the number of butts tossed onto the street.Handout

As a former smoker, to me the only thing worse than the stale smoke smell that lingered in my hair and clothes was the stench of spent cigarette butts. I remember it most vividly from my days slinging beer in a bar when smoking was still permitted.

Picking up the ashtrays wasn’t so bad: I took a clean one, placed it over the dirty one on the table and lifted them both onto my tray. This prevented stinky ashes from flying all over the customers and spared me from having to touch the rim of the dirty one. The bad part came later when I had to empty the overflowing ashtrays. Even though I smoked, the vile smell of those butts just about made me gag every time.

So when I heard that the city was handing wearable, bright green plastic ashtrays to smokers, I had to wonder who would want to cart around their used butts in their pocket? City staffers say the ashtray distribution program is just part of a larger anti-littering campaign. One round of ashtrays was given out last year, and this month another batch was ordered and distributed. Smokers are encouraged to empty them into cigarette butt recycling receptacles that hang on poles along busy streets, including Robson, Granville, Georgia, Water and assorted other downtown locations. “The smokers that did take them were happy to receive them,” says Brian Wong, Vancouver’s clean streets co-ordinator. “Some said, ‘it’s a great idea.’ ”

This enthusiastic response doesn’t necessarily mean smokers will use the ashtrays. Let’s face it. Smokers already carry a massive guilt load for the poisonous clouds of second-hand smoke they leave in their wake. When confronted while smoking a cigarette obviously destined to be ground out by their boot heel on the sidewalk, of course they will embrace the wearable ashtray. In the moment, it’s an easy yes for a good cause that assuages their conscience and helps burnish their image.

But will any of these plastic ashtrays be used more than once? I’m skeptical. Mr. Wong acknowledges there is no way to know whether the ashtrays will turn out to be as habit-forming as cigarettes. But that’s almost besides the point, he adds. The ashtrays double as a reminder that cigarette butts are litter.

Of that, there is no doubt. Counted by piece, cigarette butts top the city’s litter list and are the second most common item found during shoreline cleanups. Many people don’t realize they can be recycled. Once or twice a week city crews empty the receptacles and the butts are shipped to TerraCycle’s recycling plant in Ontario. The tobacco and paper are composted, the filters melted down and used to make plastic benches and picnic tables. Vancouver was the first city to sign on to the program and a number of Toronto business improvement associations followed.

Despite the diminishing ranks of smokers, there is still no shortage of butts. “This year we passed a milestone of collecting 100 million cigarette butts,” says Jessica Panetta, TerraCycle’s marketing and communications manager.

But given the number that still end up as litter, it is obvious many more still could be collected for recycling. The question becomes how best to achieve that goal. In 2013, organizers of a West End cleanup, received a $500 small grant from the Vancouver Foundation to buy back cigarette butts. The money was gone in less than three hours and more than 60,000 butts were collected.

North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto has for years tried to persuade the provincial government to legislate a large-scale buyback program by placing a dollar deposit on every package of cigarettes sold in B.C. The money would be returned when the butts are turned in.

“I tried with the provincial Liberals and got nowhere,” he said. “I thought I’d have better success with the NDP, but no.”

Mr. Mussatto’s plan, which is endorsed by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, would be wildly unpopular with smokers. But judging from the West End experience, it might actually succeed. Instead of producing plastic ashtrays that will probably end up in the trash, the city should join Mr. Mussatto and lobby for a deposit on cigarettes.

Not only would the butts get picked up, the extra charge may persuade a few more smokers to quit.