Cigarette Butt Committee: Social Design Students Engage with Community to Address Hong Kong’s Litter Issue – YP

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Dressed in street cleaner uniforms and armed with pliers, university students Oscar Lau Ho-yin, Sam Tang Chung-yin and Krson Ho Ka-chung walk around Hong Kong street corners picking up cigarette butts.

The trio, who founded the Cigarette Butts Committee in March, are “training” in the removal of cigarette waste, a “sport” they joke about adding to the Olympics.

“It sounds absurd, but that’s how people became interested and curious to know more about what we do,” said the fourth-year social design students at the Polytechnic University. “We hope to use humor to engage the public on cleaners’ rights.”

How the Cigarette Butt Committee Came to Be

In January, the trio were given a class to come up with an idea to raise awareness about street sweepers. After two months of research and visits to public domains, the students summed up the problem in three words: unknown, impure and unjust.

“Housekeepers face three major challenges, which are citizens’ lack of understanding of their duties, unsanitary working environment, and unfair treatment and pay,” 20-year-old Lau pointed out.

The trio recalled a visit to cleaners in Tai Po. Without fans, the staff room was stuffy. The cleaning ladies did not have a separate toilet and had to relieve themselves in a sewer.

“I feel like they don’t have any privacy. Even a toilet is considered extravagant,” Ho, 22, said.

Many street cleaners in Hong Kong face unsanitary and unfair working conditions. Photo: Felix Wong

But the cleaners’ unsanitary and unfair conditions are counting on the government to fix them. So the students decided to focus on the lack of public awareness by showing how discarded cigarette butts affected cleaners.

According to the World Health Organization, cigarette butts are the most common waste in the world. Around 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded every year, polluting beaches and waterways.

Hong Kong has 581,500 conventional cigarette smokers, who consume an average of around 13 sticks per day. Although the city has a HK$1,500 fine for littering, cigarette litter is still everywhere – and the cleaners are the ones to take care of it.

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“It wasn’t until we started picking up trash that we realized trash was a serious problem,” noted Tang, 23.

“A simple two-square-meter planter contained more than 600 cigarette butts. People don’t care if the cleaners can handle them,” Lau added.

To attract attention, the trio created their Instagram account to make collecting cigarette butts an Olympic sport. They also designed a torch lighter and an orange cart decorated with the Olympic rings logo and hundreds of cigarette butts.

With their signature accessories in tow, the trio travel to new locations every week to pick up cigarette waste. So far they have collected over 100,000 endings.

Why community engagement is essential

The course ended in June, but the trio continue to lead the project. They hope their work will help people realize that every discarded cigarette butt means extra work for cleaners.

Their project received positive feedback and helped them connect with different community groups.

“In the beginning, environmental groups and NGOs contacted us, and later some students and the general public also approached us,” they said, adding that they had also worked with an artist and teenage volunteers.

While cleaning up cigarette butts, the group also tries to engage with community members on the street.

“Some come up to us and ask us questions or say ‘add oil,'” the trio said. “We also approach smokers by helping them light their cigarettes with our torch. [We] try to understand their smoking habit and their personal stories.

At To Kwa Wan, they met a middle-aged smoker who told them about an ashtray that stood in the middle of the aisle. It was made by neighborhood smokers and people threw their cigarette butts in it. But when the government removed it and placed a new one at the end of the aisle, smokers started littering.

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“Maybe smokers find it hard to walk [down the alley] throw away the butts,” Lau suggested, using this example to show why engagement with the public was key to solving problems. “Managers are used to taking a top-down approach…instead of bringing the community together to solve it.”

As this is their final year in the Social Design program, the students hope to use what they have learned to build a more vibrant community.

“It’s not just the professionals who are capable of solving the city’s problems, but each of us can also bring about change – as long as we are willing to observe our community and connect with each other,” said the trio.

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