• Allan Classen

Pearl volunteers find ever-smaller ways to help

Linda Witt (L-R), Chris Mackovjak, Tom Biller, John Gillette and James Gulick ready for duty. Other regulars on the Pearl District Neighborhood Association Cigarette Butt team not pictured are Walter Kuncio, David Mitchell and Judie Dunken. Photo by Nathan Jundt

Cigarette butts collected, counted, turned into household products

Portland’s “city that works” slogan may draw more scoffs than salutes these days, but one corner of the dominion is doing its part. The Pearl District Neighborhood Association has been picking up trash, painting over graffiti, providing pet waste stations and patrolling its streets on its own dime for more than a decade, and its mission keeps expanding.

The association’s latest livability initiative—collecting cigarette butts—may be the purest example to date of identifying a problem, crafting a solution, raising private dollars and then creating an ongoing program to fix it. To top it off, the used butts are shipped off to a plant in Chicago, where they are remanufactured into backpacks for children, shopping bags and other household products.

The program was launched by Pearl resident Dave Mitchell, who saw a cigarette receptacle in a freeway rest stop in California in 2016 and thought something like it was needed in his own neighborhood. His research eventually led him to a New Jersey firm called TerraCycle, which not only sold receptacles but operated a comprehensive program employed in Seattle, Pittsburgh, and other cities around the United States and Canada.

Mitchell was off to a good start, but the city that works didn’t make his job easy. It took almost a year to get approval from the city to mount the receptacles on sidewalk sign posts. The receptacles aren’t cheap—$100—so PDNA had to raise about $10,000 to spread 100 of them across the district.

Progress stalled when it was learned that it would cost $25,000 a year to have Central City Concern workers empty the bins on a weekly basis.

PDNA’s broad shoulders came to the rescue. The association that had acquired, placed and raised $25,000 annually for hauling of refuse from public trash cans in the Pearl for seven years (until persuading the city to take over the service in 2019) was not going to be tripped up by tiny cigarette butts.

James Gulick (left) and John Gillette empty a receptacle. Photo by Nathan Jundt

With about 90 volunteers already picking up trash as part of PDNA’s Clean Teams and serving on foot patrols, Mitchell found a handful ready to add cigarette butts removal to their resumes. Soon they divided the district into the Northern 24, the Central 16 and the Parks 20.

Jim Gulick and Walter Kuncio tackle the 24-block northern zone, Linda Witt is in charge of the Central 16 and John Gillette covers the Parks 20.

Gillette, 81, a retired psychiatrist from California, makes his rounds along the Park Blocks once every six weeks, filling bags with smelly refuse and keeping a log of his findings. It takes him an hour to 90 minutes each time, and he comes away with a couple of pounds of dirty, often wet, butts.

The program began last December, and through October, 125 pounds (125,000 butts) have been collected and shipped to Chicago. That includes some picked up by Clean Team members on their regular routes. Bags of butts are then shipped to TerraCycle, which reprocesses the cellulose acetate filters into consumer goods.

Gillette cheerfully completes his rounds despite its foul nature and even danger.

“It’s pretty smelly,” he said. “Cigarette butts are not pleasant to deal with.”

Recently he reached into a receptacle and nicked his finger on an uncapped hypodermic needle, necessitating a visit to an urgent care center and follow-up tests for HIV and hepatitis.

Why does he do it?

“I’m pleased with the results,” he said. “It gives me a certain degree of pleasure to walk it and see that it looks nice.”

Judie Dunken, chair of the PDNA Livability Committee, said, “People are just mad to pick up trash these days. A couple of these guys are scientists and they just love this. It may seem menial to some, but I think it’s meaningful.”

The cigarette project and other programs under her purview have replaced Polish the Pearl, a semiannual cleanup day that, although popular, wasn’t up to the task. Periodic graffiti mitigation work days had the same limitation. Greater frequency was needed to stay ahead of the problem, and Pearl neighbors were ready to pick up the pace.

With greater frequency came stricter protocols. The Clean Teams have seven zones, each with a leader responsible for training and managing their crews. Members get a vest and an extension grabber stick. While the total Clean Team participation has dropped in half since the pandemic, the Cigarette Butt Program is ramping up. It started with four volunteers and now has eight.

Volunteers learn about the lives of fellow community members and notice when normal rhythms change. They know where smokers gather and often get thank yous from smokers who appreciate the receptacles.

Far left: David Mitchell (left) and Chris Mackovjak make the rounds regularly to check on and repair broken receptacles.

“We know our neighborhood so well,” Dunken said.

The program provides rare insights into another side of life in the Pearl. The butt receptacles are sometimes stolen or vandalized, a puzzling finding that has led team members to suspect that desperate smokers are extracting the remaining tobacco in the stubs for a few truly recycled drags.

While the livability programs were built mostly on retirees, Dunken said younger people and those from diverse backgrounds are joining in.

Though Mitchell no longer chairs the Cigarette Butts Program, he remains its primary ambassador. He and Clean Team volunteer Chris Mackovjak repair and replace receptacles as necessary.

It goes beyond litter. The chemicals in cigarette butts are so toxic that a goldfish placed in a liter of water with one butt will die within one hour, Mitchell said. If not removed from streets and sidewalks, they will be washed into nearby rivers and the ocean. The national Surfrider Foundation deems them poisonous to fish and birds, one reason many beach towns ban smoking.

“It’s a serious environmental issue,” he said. “To me, it’s a natural for the city of Portland to take on.”

Pearl volunteers may be winning the day in their corner of the city, but Mitchell believes it should become a citywide taxpayer-supported program, as it is in at least one North American city (Vancouver, B.C.).


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