Lisa Chen founded Let’s Talk Butts to provide social justice while cleaning up cigarette butt litter. She is also a dive master involved in marine conservation and research, environmental education, habitat protection and waste reduction and is the founder and CEO of Marine Way, an app-based solution for ghost fishing gear. Chen is a master’s of marine management candidate at Dalhousie University.
This piece is part of a series of profiles highlighting young people across the country who are addressing the climate crisis. These extraordinary humans give me hope. I write these stories to pay it forward.
Tell us about Let’s Talk Butts.
We want to eliminate cigarette butt litter through cleanups, outreach, litter mapping, creating butt collection cans and educating the public. I have worked on this in many Canadian communities, in Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States.
How did you get the idea?
I wanted to use my biology degree to fight climate change but had trouble finding a relevant job. One day a friend and I quit our jobs and booked a one-way ticket to Singapore to travel. On a small Malaysian island, I wandered off the usual tourist track and found myself on a beach surrounded by plastic bottles, bags and cigarette butts. As is common in tourist destinations in the Global South, wealthy tourists never saw this beach as they were isolated on their own.
Naively, I wondered why local people didn’t clean it up. Curious, I walked into the backstreets of the town. It was piled in litter. I understood then how utterly unfair it would be to expect impoverished local people to solve this problem on their own. They lack the education to understand the toxicity of the plastics, clean disposal options and have no access to decision-makers who could change things. I had a revelation: we cannot solve the climate crisis unless we also address global inequality.
I came back to Canada and joined the Canadian Wildlife Federation-sponsored Canadian Conservation Corps where I conceived the Let’s Talk about Butts campaign. The Chantiers jeunesse social entrepreneurship and Ocean Wise Ocean Bridge programs gave me additional training and funding, which supported the successful launch.
Why did you focus on butts?
Meet Lisa Chen, who wanted to use her biology degree to fight climate change but had trouble finding a relevant job. #Oceans #Litter #YoungClimateLeaders
Approximately 4.95 trillion cigarette butts are littered annually, more than any other item. A deadly combination of microplastics and toxins, one butt can contaminate up to 500 litres of water with toxins that remain active for 10 years. In a litre of water, one butt will kill marine life and fish. Discarded on land, they contaminate soil and groundwater and eventually the food chain. But they are also made of recyclable cellulose acetate and can be made into plastic pallets and lumber products. Let’s Talk Butts helps communities map out cigarette butt hot spots, make safe, readily available collection containers and ensure they get recycled.
Ninety-five trillion butts are littered annually around the world.
What else happens besides a cleanup?
Each campaign provides education about the toxins, their impacts and the benefits of recycling. But I have learned this is not enough to bring change. People need to understand the potential economic risks of not doing anything and the upsides of acting. They have to learn how to approach decision-makers to develop local collection points and recycling capacity. A side benefit is that once people know they can have agency and access, they are empowered to ask for more justice about other things too.
In one Vietnamese community, plastics filled their lakes and rivers. After we made information available on postcards in their language about the health hazards and what to do about it, people enthusiastically joined in the cleanup. Now the community has seen its economy benefit from tourism and has been empowered to demand centralized waste management.
Tell us about your thesis.
My research focused on strategies for developing, evaluating and improving ocean literacy. I have learned we will not win the race against climate change unless we fund more than just science education. We also have to fund economic development and empower people to be confident about reaching decision-makers.
How did you come to care about the environment?
I was raised in a conservative Chinese Canadian family. I am sure my parents hoped I would be an accountant or other professional. But I have always been drawn to the ocean and feel most at home outside. Studying sciences was acceptable, but I had a narrow view of how to apply that understanding until I learned about the dangers of biodiversity loss, climate change and plastic pollution to the oceans. I am happy to be working on this now from a variety of perspectives, understanding that solving these challenges requires decision-making and science to be woven together.
Do you have any advice for other young people?
Step outside your comfort zone. That is where the greatest learning happens and where you will be most likely able to apply what you know in other disciplines, which is what the world needs.
What would you like to say to older readers?
It is never too late to take action. Use your money and power to influence decision-makers to work with scientists and vice versa. If you have young people in your life, inspire them to take action by doing it yourself.