Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
The city’s “Neat Streets” initiative encourages residents to answer poll questions using their discarded cigarette butts.
Boston, like many other cities, has a litter problem. But it recently rolled out an initiative to manage the disposal of cigarette butts—the most common form of litter worldwide.
In addition to their obvious health hazards (smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.), cigarettes pose a serious environmental hazard if left lying on the street. Not only do discarded cigarette butts attract harmful bacteria and threaten nearby plants and animals, but they can also take up to ten years to decompose.
Already, the city of Boston has made significant efforts to reduce smoking in public areas. Starting in 2003, the city banned smoking in indoor workplaces, followed by a ban on selling cigarettes in pharmacies and on college campuses in 2008. Four years later, the city also banned smoking in public housing, and in 2014, smoking was officially banned in Boston’s public parks.
In addition to $100-300 fines for violating these bans, residents can be charged with up to 30 days in jail for tossing cigarette butts out of their car windows, according to Massachusetts state law. And yet even with all of these regulations in place, discarded cigarette butts continue to litter Boston’s streets.
That’s where the “Neat Streets” initiative comes in. On Monday, Boston’s new municipal program installed five receptacles in the city’s high-foot-traffic corridors. But, unlike your average trash can, these receptacles attempt to turn the stub disposal process into something of a game.
On the front of each bright red box, the city has included a question with two possible answers. Residents can use their butts to cast a vote for their superpower of choice (invisibility or flight) or choose the quality most valued in a friend (loyalty or humor). Other questions range from sports-related topics to guessing the amount of snow Boston will receive this year.
The initial design inspiration came from a London initiative of the same name, which distributed its own “ballot bins” throughout the city. Thanks to the success of the project, the parent company, Hubbub, now sells the bins for customers to purchase (they can even personalize their color and questions).
But according to Atma Khalsa, Managing Director of danger!awesome, the 3D printing start-up that designed the Boston boxes, the Boston project was executed “entirely from scratch without having any designs or input from London.” After being approached by the city of Boston, Khalsa worked with them over the course of several months to develop a series of prototypes. During this time, the city even tested one of the initial prototypes by having it torched by the fire department.
In the end, Khalsa was tasked with creating five boxes for the launch, with the option to produce more if the initiative is successful. (The production process is outlined in the video below.) Working with the city, she says, has opened her eyes to the extent of their of civic engagement. “I love how ready the city is to do interesting, fun things in order to solve these problems,” Khalsa tells CityLab.
Indeed, by making the disposal process interactive, the city hopes that residents and tourists will be encouraged to protect their surrounding environment. But an initiative like this also stands to save the city a good deal of money. Most of danger!awesome’s projects cost around $100-200 per item to manufacture; in contrast, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation recently allotted a $1.3 million annual budget for picking up trash off its streets.
Of course, cigarette butts are just one of the many problems that cities have to address when designing their clean-up efforts. But the more people dispose of their cigarette butts in trash bins or “Neat Streets” receptacles, the less disgusting sidewalks will be for everyone.