On a recent sunny Saturday morning, some 35 West End residents in Vancouver donned yellow vests and blue rubber gloves and proceeded to scour their neighbourhood’s streets in search of cigarette butts.
They were there at the behest of John Merzetti, who started getting locals to pick up trash as part of his “West End Cleanup” group back in in 2007. Since then, he said, “cigarette butts have increasingly become the bane of our existence.”
Merzetti had convinced more than just concerned West End residents to search the streets that day; they were joined by a number of politicians running for office in the upcoming municipal elections. He’s appealed to them by way of a digital campaign carrying the tagline “Don’t be a butthead.”
He hopes that after spending a few hours picking up the butts by hand, those who got elected would take action to prevent the discarded cigarettes from being left on the street in the first place.
A simple ask
Before going off to pick up butts, Merzetti stood in front of the crowd on a bench in front of the Community Garden at the corner of Davie and Burrard, holding a container overflowing with the fruits of his group’s labour. “This was only collected over two hours,” he yelled.
The laws the current administration had passed so far, such as the smoking ban in public parks and on beaches, were obviously not working. “The parks are littered,” he said. Nearby Nelson Park “is disgusting.”
Jason Lamarche, City Council candidate from the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), said the clean disposal of cigarette butts wasn’t currently a priority on his agenda. But he promised that if elected, he’d make time to address it.
He also brought along a cameraman to film him picking up the butts, which he later on posted on YouTube and on his website.
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers and am definitely open to suggestions,” said Aaron Jasper, member of Vision Vancouver and chair of the Vancouver Park Board. “Cigarette butts are a huge issue.”
However, Jasper refused to admit to any mistakes in the current legislation. “The bylaw itself, the rationale and the scope of the bylaw, I stand behind it 100 percent,” he said.
Adriane Carr, candidate for City Council for the Vancouver Green Party, said she’d participated in the West End Cleanups before and promised that if elected, she’d address the issue within three to four months.
“I can’t see how the city would not be willing to move on putting in some more garbage cans and ash trays,” she said. “It’s a simple ask.”
It’s up to them
The West End Cleanup has been fighting for this “simple ask” for years. Driven by a deep appreciation for the neighbourhood, Merzetti has been able to rally volunteers to pick up trash on the second Saturday of every month since the group’s inception; some have even adopted their own block whose cleanliness they oversee.
The candidates’ participation on one of the last Saturday cleanups before votes are cast in the upcoming municipal election left him hopeful but realistic about the prospect that his hard work may finally pay off.
“We got a good turnout from all the different political groups today and I tried to drill it into them that something has to be done,” he said. The next step will be to contact the councillors after the elections, around the New Year, and remind them of their promises.
“It’s not going to be a piece of cake,” Merzetti said. “But we’ve presented this [issue] to them on a silver platter. And now it’s up to them to do something with it.”