Locals install ‘Ballot Bins’ to limit cigarette butt litter

One of two ‘Ballot Bins’ recently installed in the Dickson Street Entertainment District

Photo: Dustin Bartholomew, Flyer Staff

One of the folks behind the recent cigarette butt cleanup in downtown Fayetteville has put a new idea into action to try and prevent them from ending up on the ground in the first place.

Colin Massey, who works as a county agent on water quality issues for the UA Cooperative Extension Service, recently installed two “Ballot Bins” in Fayetteville’s entertainment district in hopes that engaging with smokers in the area will make them think twice about where their butts end up on Dickson Street.

The Ballot Bins are simply cigarette receptacles divided into two bins, with a poll question on the front. Smokers can then “vote” in the poll by placing their butts in the corresponding bin. Questions like “Which is better: Lager or Ale,” or “Who’s the better footballer: Ronaldo or Messi” were used by the UK-based inventors of the bins, which proved to be an effective way to curb cigarette butt littering in populated areas.

Massey installing a filter system on a stormwater drain

Courtesy photo

Massey saw the idea online, and his work with water quality issues along with his experience volunteering in local cleanup efforts led him to decide to try the concept in Fayetteville.

“I was involved in two cleanups this summer, and over a total of about three hours, we collected over 20 pounds of cigarette butts,” he said. “We wondered if there was a way that we could divert those before they ever hit the ground.”

Massey purchased the bins with grant funds intended to demonstrate water quality issues in a way that is impactful to the public. Since cigarette butts commonly end up in storm drains that lead directly to local waterways, the Ballot Bins were a perfect fit for his mission.

“The cigarette butts create a lot of problems because they float,” he said. “So, they end up in the stormwater where wildlife can mistake them for food, and they leech some really nasty chemicals into our water.”

Massey worked with Peter Nierengarten and Brian Pugh of the city’s Sustainability and Recycling & Trash departments to obtain the necessary permits for the receptacles. There are two Ballot Bins currently installed in the Dickson Street area; one near the railroad tracks across from George’s Majestic Lounge, and another near the Shulertown Food Truck Court at the intersection of School Avenue.

Nierengarten said he worked with Massey to help determine locations that had historically been problem areas for litter – particularly with cigarette butts.

“It’s a common misconception that they are biodegradable,” he said. “Plus, the Dickson Street area is in the White River Watershed, and if they aren’t dealt with, they will end up in the river.”

Massey empties the bins every week or two, changes the questions, and collects data on how many butts he’s diverting along the way. In addition to using fun and engaging questions like “Who will win the upcoming Razorback football game,” and “Zombies or Mummies” around Halloween, he’s also used the bins to increase education and awareness around the issue of littering and where the butts end up.

“We try to mix it up with funny and engaging questions, but also some that are educational,” he said. “We asked a true or false question like ‘T or F: Cigarettes are the most commonly littered items’ recently as a way to try to get that message across.”

Massey said he has received a bit of negative feedback from at least one person online who felt the bins would glorify smoking, but he said he feels like that idea is a bit of a stretch.

“I can see where they are coming from, but we’re definitely not trying to promote smoking,” he said. “I can’t imagine someone seeing these and saying, ‘Oh I want to participate in this so I should start smoking.'”

In addition to the Ballot Bins, Massey is working on other projects to help keep trash and pollutants out of local waterways. Recently, he installed filters on storm water drains in a handful of locations in Fayetteville and Springdale to illustrate how much litter, sediment, yard waste, and oil can be picked up by runoff water, enter storm drains, and flow directly to streams and rivers, ultimately affecting water quality.

Massey considers the Ballot Bins project to be a pilot for something that could become more widespread around the city.

He’s been encouraged by the early results.

“It’s nasty to clean out, but if they are filling up, then they aren’t ending up on the ground and that’s what we want,” he said.