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An altercation over a cigarette butt brings thoughts of cleanup campaign

There is something about the geography of where I live that makes it an excellent place to have loud, screaming arguments between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m.

My theory is that the distance from our house to the concentration of drinking holes on Commercial Drive is exactly the distance required for a relationship to completely disintegrate. Friends and lovers, men and women, straight and gay – by the time they hit our corner, it's over.

Shouting matches or altercations of any kind during daylight hours are more rare, and get my attention, especially if I happen to be outside tending to my Swiss chard, which is doing marvellously, by the way.

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A recent one involved an older man in a Smart car, leaning on the horn while facing a red light. The car in front of him had stopped for the light, and its driver, a young woman, was gesturing her bewilderment. Granted, it is one of those pedestrian-controlled intersections that some drivers tend not to take very seriously and most cyclists ignore entirely. The man was leaning out of his car window, shouting something. The intersection was clear, but did he seriously expect her to drive through the red light at his insistence? That's what I guessed was happening before I became involved, as I often do.

"The light is red," I said to him. He muttered something unintelligible in his agitated state, prompting me to say again, more loudly, "It's a red light! What do you want her to do? Drive through it?"

When the light turned green, both cars were on their way. But the man circled the block and pulled up in front of me.

"I wasn't honking at her because the light was red," he told me calmly. "I was honking because she threw a cigarette butt on the ground – right there," he said, pointing at the road. It was true – the butt was still smouldering in the middle of the road. "How do you like people like that fouling up your neighbourhood?" he asked me.

I wanted to tell him that I preferred it to people who leaned on their car horns for extended periods of time, but I didn't. He was trying to shame a litterbug. I can get behind that.

When I can't sleep at night, I imagine Vancouver city Councillor Adriane Carr throwing darts at a cork-board covered in sticky notes. Written in Sharpie marker on the little yellow squares of paper are phrases like "smart meters," "idling buses," "gas-powered lawn mowers," "dogs tied up outside stores," "vegan housing," and so on.

This week she hit the note that read "cigarette butts."

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Ms. Carr will bring a motion to council next week asking the city to do something about the cigarette butts that litter city streets, and apparently wreak havoc on the sewage system and marine environment.

In her motion, Ms. Carr points out that while Vancouver has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country, recent statistics show that there are still more than 113,000 smokers in the Vancouver Coastal Health Region. She also says that in recent cleanup campaigns, cigarette butts were identified as the most common article of litter.

She goes on to say that the city's ban on smoking near building entrances, bus stops and beaches has not been accompanied by the installation of cigarette butt receptacles in public areas where people do smoke.

Smokers these days appear to me to be a chastened lot. Most I see abide by the buffer zones around doorways and bus shelters. In my neighbourhood, they often go so far as to avoid residential streets, opting instead to travel through the back alleys where they'll gladly endure the dumpsters and compost bins rather than encounter the disapproving, over-the-reading-glasses scowls of porch-squatting Sudoku enthusiasts.

Yes, there are still a few of those who, Roger Sterling-like, can't understand what all the fuss is all about. To them, the world is an ashtray.

But given the opportunity to dispose of a cigarette butt responsibly, I bet most smokers would do their best.

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The problem is that there is no way to collect a bunch of cigarette butts that isn't disgusting, or that doesn't result in a smouldering toxic mess far more offensive than a couple of butts flicked to the curb.

That doesn't mean the city should abandon the idea – clearly butts are a problem.

I foresee a community engagement process called "Talk Butts to Us" that includes a design competition with a jury chaired by Douglas Coupland.

If the man can get people excited about a utility pole, imagine what he could do for an ashtray.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn

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