Removing cigarette butts: Chinese city’s controversial hygiene campaign

XI’AN, - How does a Chinese city get rid of unpleasant cigarette butts discarded in public places? Should it slap heavy fines, set up cigarettes buts bring moneyblaring loudspeakers, or train red-armband wearing staffs to remind careless smokers?

In Xianyang City in northwest China’ s Shaanxi Province, authorities have adopted a novel policy of removing cigarette butts as the city spruces itself up for the upcoming “Clean City” inspection.

“You can get five cents (0.75 U.S. cents) for each cigarette butt you hand in,” read a poster that has been put up at locations throughout the city since September.

Enthused residents lined up outside local community offices, ready to trade bags of cigarette butts for cash.

“Most are older residents who have abundant leisure time and are happy to add to their pensions,” said Sun Kun, who works at the public sanitation office in one community.

Mr. Li, a senior citizen in his seventies, said he had been collecting cigarette butts every morning on his walk. In his eyes, the act was both noble and profitable.

“I’ve collected more than 3,000 butts in five days, which I can exchange for 150 yuan (22.5 dollars),” said Li.

Overall, the city has received millions of discarded butts, and hundreds of thousands of yuan have been handed out in reward, said Xing Wanchuan, spokesman for the city’s “Clean City” application office.

“After the implementation of this policy, our city streets have basically become free of cigarette butts,” said Xing.

But not all citizens welcomed this policy.

Zhao Ang, a 28-year-old local resident, said he once threw away a cigarette butt on a city square. Much to his astonishment, an old man bent down and picked up the litter.

“I felt so bad — an older person was collecting the rubbish dumped by a young man,” said Zhang.

After that embarrassing experience, said Zhang, he didn’t want to litter any more.

However, not everybody believes that exchanging cigarette butts for cash is the best way to root out such behavior.

“Only when smokers quit the nasty habit of dumping butts can we truly wave goodbye to that kind of litter in public places,” posted a netizen called “Crazy Potato”.

“Chinese people should also smoke less,” posted another netizen, “db0923”. China is estimated to have 350 million smokers — one-third of the world’s smoking population.

Some also claimed the money-driven campaign degraded moral standards.

“Picking up discarded butts should be a spontaneous act driven by virtue, not a cash reward,” argued local resident Wang Chao.

“Will people still pick up butts when this policy concludes?” he asked.


For many local communities, the “butts for cash” campaign seemed unsustainable from the moment it was introduced.

“Cigarette butts are taken in without checks, and many apparently came from ash-trays,” revealed a community employee.

According to the staff, the colossal amount of butts has placed many communities under a heavy financial burden.

In addition, some community offices had stopped offering rewards as the inspecting delegations left, triggering a public outcry against the ad hoc nature of the campaign.

“It seems the local government is just improving for the inspection and has not come up with any long-term remedy,” posted a netizen “Drunk Southeast” .

In fact, some cities resort to “window dressing” when applying for the award of national or provincial “Clean City” .

A flurry of campaigns, often controversial, will be implemented to improve cleanliness standards — the streets will be tidied up, chaotic marketplaces will be made to look more orderly, and pest control programs will be introduced.

On the eve of a hygiene inspection in 2007, the government of Luoyang, a central Chinese city, reportedly purchased dead flies from local residents to encourage killing flies, a policy that netizens joked “might create a new industry of fly farming.”

In 2006, Nanchang, capital of the southeastern province of Jiangxi, welcomed the Clean City delegation by clearing out small snack stands that had been blamed for dirtying the city’s streets.

The ban, albeit temporary, made life difficult for residents, who usually ate breakfast or had a late-night snack at these outlets.

And after the departure of the delegation, many streets soon returned to their untidy ways.

“Many cities do not make continuous efforts to improve living conditions, but are intent on short-term campaigns for honorary titles,” said Wang Mingmei, professor at the Jiangxi Academy of Social Sciences.

“China needs clean cities at all times, not clean cities when delegations come,” he added.

By Xinhua Writers Yao Yuan, Liang Aiping

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