The Cigarette Waste Brigade pilot project began Tuesday with the installation of 110 recycling receptacles in four downtown areas where discarded butts are a messy problem.
Vancouver has a goal of making the city the greenest in the globe by 2020.
Deputy Mayor Andrea Reimer said the program would help the city reach that goal.
"As a city councillor the last five years, I can not tell you how many people complain about the problem of litter on our streets, and most especially cigarette butts," Reimer told a crowd gathered for the announcement.
"Whether it's downtown Vancouver, or in our parks or on our beaches, people take pride in our city and they want to see our city and our city streets clean. This is a new way to make that happen."
Reimer said the world-leading program is the result of four years of discussions in finding a solution, not just for litter, but for the bigger problem of ensuring that the butts can find another life instead of going to the landfill.
Cigarette filters are made out of cellulose acetate, and can be recycled into building materials such as planks and shipping pallets.
While Vancouver is touted as having the lowest smoking rate among Canadian cities, it's not alone when it comes to smokers tossing cigarette butts onto streets.
Albe Zakes, with TerraCycle, the company teaming with the city on the recycling project, said cigarette litter and butts are one of the most pervasive waste streams on the planet.
"Estimates are that 3.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered every single year," he said.
"Not only is this a massive amount of waste, but they're incredibly toxic. Just one cigarette butt in a litre of water can poison and kill the fish, based on studies done by San Diego University."
TerraCycle will supply the receptacles, cover costs for installing and emptying them and collect the butts while providing employment through two inner-city charities.
One of those charities, United We Can, has been operating a bottle recycling depot for 15 years in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, paying some of the city's most marginalized people for their collected bottles and cans.
Gerry Martin, general manager of United We Can, said they're excited to be a partner in the unique, "full-circle" pilot project.
"This plan accomplishes the recycling of cigarettes butts, cleaning our streets, sidewalks, and employing people who are sometimes hard to employ, but appreciate the dignity of employment," Martin said.
United We Can workers will be in charge of the servicing the receptacles, charting the collection data and providing the results of the pilot project.
"Residents of Vancouver should know that every time they use one of the receptacles they are recycling and providing employment for local disadvantaged people," Martin said.
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