UK groups use drones to battle Bristol’s cigarette butt plague

drone cigarette butts

A pair of environmental non-governmental organizations in England are using drones – and a dose of humor – to measure the volume of cigarette butts littering the city of Bristol, and convince smokers to stop illegally flicking the polluting nubs in public spaces.

The effort is being led by the group Clean Up Britain (CLUB), which kicked off its four-month consciousness-raising project called “Get Your Butt Off Our Streets” last November. In doing so, it teamed up with Ellipsis Earth, a group that taps into artificial intelligence-enhanced tech to identify, map, and measure various types of polluting material around the world. In Bristol, that involved Ellipis piloting drones around the city to work up a quantitative survey of cigarette butts littering sidewalks, parks, streets, and other public property. That 10-day aerial reading will serve as a baseline for comparison with a second UAV scan when CLUB’s information campaign to get people to dispose of the waste properly ends in February.

As part of its drive to make Bristol residents aware of just how noxious the plague of irresponsibly tossed cigarette butts is, CLUB has produced a series of posters using humor to stress the impatience of non-smokers having to live amid the malodorous tide. The posters feature several different photos of butt-choked public settings, along with a double-sided pun in messages reading “Flicking Dangerous,” “Flicking Selfish,” “Flicking Illegal,” and “Stupid Flickers Kill Fish.” 

As its incitation to dispose of spent smokes in civil-minded and non-polluting ways, CLUB is also handing out 100,000 portable ashtrays to smokers spotted in the streets, or at concerts, nightclubs, and popular events in the city.

Ellipsis’ follow-up drone flight should provide an idea of whether Bristol nicotine addicts have heeded the appeal and ceased – or at least reduced – their unchecked chucking of cigarette butts. But even if its message fails to get through, CLUB is already planning on deploying its aerial survey and educational mission in other cities around the country.

According to the group, some 35 billion cigarettes are sold in the UK each year, around 70% of which are ultimately flicked away in whatever setting the smoker happens to be in when finished. Those plastic-filled nubs not only take nearly 15 years to decompose, but also contain chemicals damaging to wildlife and the environment. 

In 2020 Ellipsis carried out a similar drone audit of cigarette butts in Sorrento, Italy – a nation that drops about 13 million of the carcinogen-laced ends every day. Last year the group carried out an arial mapping of trash in Bournemouth. 

While Ellipsis and CLUB frequently receive support from corporate backers and municipalities they serve, authorities in Bristol say city policy prohibits them from getting involved with one of the camaign’s sponsors – tobacco company Philip Morris Limited.

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