Aiain Muller

It took Alain Muller only 30 seconds to pick up a dozen discarded cigarette butts around The Sails sculpture in downtown Kelowna on Monday.

Just like a rock star, Alain Muller is on a world tour of indeterminate length with an ever-evolving list of cities.

However, Muller’s stage is streets, sidewalks and parks where he picks up and sweeps up cigarette butts.

“I know I could pick up a million butts today and it won’t change the course of world pollution,” said Muller.

“But, little by little, I’m hoping to have a massive effect by getting people to think about cigarette butts, and influence and inspire people to stop throwing butts on the ground and picking up what’s already on the ground.”

Muller, who hails from Strasbourg, France, is in Kelowna for a week, clearing up as many butts as he can and visiting friends.

Muller chose Kelowna after a six-month European tour picking up butts in 10 countries because he has a place to stay while in the Okanagan.

“I worked as a ski technician at Big White in 2016-17 and 2017-18, so I know people here who are willing to let me crash at their place,” said Muller.

“Having a place to stay is very important as I bum my way across the world trying to spend as little as possible while picking up as many cigarette butts as possible.”

At The Sails sculpture on the downtown waterfront on Monday, he was ready to talk, have his picture taken and scrounge for butts.

It wasn’t very difficult. Around The Sails, he readily found a dozen butts to sweep into his long-handled dustpan.

Donning plastic kitchen gloves, he quickly picked up a dozen more.

“The reality is, most cities do a good job at keeping litter off the ground,” said Muller.

“But cigarette butts are a different case all together. Most smokers don’t think of it as littering when they stamp out a butt on the ground or flick a butt away.”

In fact, cigarette butts are the most common form of litter on the planet. About 5.6 trillion cigarettes with filters are made in the world every year, and an estimated two-thirds of them are dumped irresponsibly.

That’s a massive volume of butts polluting our pavement, soil and water.

Discarded butts are insidious. They are small and often not immediately visible. But take a closer look and they are everywhere.

Besides being unsightly, they are a pollutant. A butt has remnants of tobacco, and its paper-wrapped filter is made of plastic fibres soaked with toxic chemicals ranging from arsenic and nicotine to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals.

Butts contaminate soil as they break down, and the toxins can end up groundwater, where a single butt can pollute 40 litres of water.

A self-professed nomad who has travelled and worked around the world for the past 15 years, Muller, 35, wanted an environmental project for his latest spin around the globe.

He’s a smoker himself who hasn’t flicked a butt in a decade, but was appalled by the volume of butt pollution.

So, he sold everything he owned in France and hit the road.

In the six months he spent in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia and Croatia, he picked up an estimated 250,000 butts.

The biggest single-day total was 50,000 butts in the smoking area at a university in the Netherlands, where he was aided by a group of student volunteers.

His first stop in Canada was the Shambhala Electronic Music Festival near Nelson, where he helped distribute 5,000 reusable Pocket Ashtrays made by Vernon-based Jack Elliman.

The 100,000 cigarette butts collected at Shambhala were sent off to a recycler who turns them into hard plastic.

Through education, the vast majority of butts at Shambhala were collected in specialized receptacles, proving that awareness and availability of an alternative works to keep butts off the ground.

Because Muller generally doesn’t collect 100,000 butts at a time, he throws the butts he collects in municipal garbage cans.

Elliman discovered Muller online while he was still in Europe and sent him a case of the reusable Pocket Ashtrays to hand out to smokers and promote to cities.

Leeuwarden, Netherlands, is looking at ordering thousands of the Pocket Ashtrays to stamp with a message to keep Leeuwarden clean.

So far, Muller’s work with Pocket Ashtray is voluntary, but it may develop into something more.

In the meantime, Muller travels and clears up butts on his own dime, stopping to work for a few days or a week when he runs low on money.

From Kelowna, he plans to travel down the west coast of the United States into Mexico and Central America to South America.

From there, there’s Asia and Africa to conquer.

But there’s no set schedule or timeline.

Muller calls his adventure The Hummingbird Tour.

“I know it’s a bit cheesy, but I recognized myself in the tale of a hummingbird who stays behind during a forest fire to fly back and forth to the river to collect a sip of water to put on the blaze,” he said.

“He knows he can’t put out the fire, but he does his part and tries to inspire the elephants, who have big trucks and can spray more water, to do the same.”

You can track Muller’s trek on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube under The Hummingbird Tour.