The Sidewalk Buttler Story Began in 2013
The story of Sidewalk Buttler began in 2013 to help clean up toxic cigarette litter soon after the city of Portland, Maine mandated that downtown shop owners sweep up cigarette butts in front of their stores. Mike had already been doing this every morning in front of our restaurant Spartan Grill and he wondered about a better solution. His solution would be one that would serve business owners, the city, and the environment. He’d been watching people collecting bottles and cans in Monument Square for the bottle deposit, and realized how this idea could be applied to cigarette butts.
So Mike decided to initiate a “Butt Bounty” in May of 2013 to see if this could help solve the problem. The idea was to pay five cents for each butt collected and brought to the restaurant. Some regular restaurant customers thought he had a great idea, and several of us contributed to a “Butt Bounty” fund. One contributor happened to work for the Portland Press Herald and they published a story about the upcoming event. Two days after the story was published, 25,000 butts were collected and brought into our restaurant. While this was an obvious win for clean streets, we also immediately recognized that, in the long run, this was not going to be pleasant for our patrons, or fiscally prudent for us.
Over dinner, an Idea is Born
Over dinner that night, I remember Mike reminiscing about the days when everyone had ashtrays throughout their homes for smokers. I particularly remember him saying, “but when smokers got broomed outside, no one thought to provide outdoor ashtrays.” And right then and there, the idea for a Sidewalk Buttler to solve the problem of cigarette litter was born.
Mike began cutting quarter-inch steel for his invention at home, in our driveway, in a quiet, family-oriented, residential area. Have you heard the sound of steel being cut? When I tell you that the ear-splitting screech from that saw on metal was deafening, believe it. Luckily, our neighbors were understanding. After discovering the steel tubing was far too heavy anyway for the device we wanted to produce, the days of deafening everybody within a square block were thankfully over.
In June of 2013, Mike pitched the Sidewalk Buttler to the first Maine Civic Hack Day and they loved it. Help with graphics as well as a business plan came next. The organizers took the very first Sidewalk Buttler (made of PVC pipe) and attached it to a sign post outside Geno’s Rock Club on Congress Street in downtown Portland. And guess what? Smokers loved it — but most importantly, they used it.
Problem-Solving the brand new Sidewalk Buttler
After that, Mike moved our operation from the driveway into our garage. Cutting the PVC pipe was easier and much less noisy, but we were concerned about fire retardancy, so we decided to fabricate from lightweight, fire-safe aluminum. However, there was still one problem: our garage is 14 feet long and the 4 inch square aluminum extrusions are 24 feet long. We needed a solution but we weren’t quite ready to build a new garage to house this new venture.
Then one day I came home from work to find a square 2 foot by 2 foot hole punched out of the garage door. Needless to say, not a great look for curbside appeal…or property values. I remember sitting in my car looking straight at the hole as Mike emerged from the garage so excited about his new garage workshop. This is life with a creative.
So now we had a hole in our garage and the scream of aluminum being cut with a $200 Lowe’s chop saw. Another shoutout to our oh-so-tolerant neighbors.
Mike quickly produced a dozen of the newly-designed Sidewalk Buttler and installed them around downtown Portland as a proof of concept. Within five months, we had collected seven 5-gallon buckets of cigarette butts. Unfortunately, he stored them in our backyard, dumped under a tarp on my delinquent square foot garden frame! Again, not a great look, but even worse was the smell. Life with a creative can be trying, even when you’re trying to clean up the environment!
Meeting Goals and Making Progress
Our next goal was to increase the number of Buttlers downtown to 80 and start to market them door to door. By the time we were finished, Sidewalk Buttler in Portland numbered a cool 200. On Earth Day 2014, we organized a “Butt Dump” and visually demonstrated that we had collected 400,000 butts.
As a result, the National Resource Council of Maine included us in their Sustainability Report to the State of Maine. We could not have been prouder of what we’d accomplished. And there was more — much more — to come.
Stay tuned — Part II is on the way!