Johnny Elliot, Amanda Roberts, and Loyd Platson embark on an afternoon of voluntary litter cleanup in Sitka on August 4. Over two hours the group of three (plus Doug Osborne) picked up just over 1,100 cigarette butts, three times the amount collected last August. (KCAW/Rose)

Sales tax returns won’t be available for a while, but we do have some unfiltered data on Sitka’s record breaking tourist season that’s not exactly secondhand. Amanda Roberts is a health educator with the SEARHC health promotion program. She leads monthly cigarette butt cleanups in Sitka. She says this summer they’ve seen significantly more butts than they have in the last four years.  

“Just with increased tourism and increased people out in public, especially after a couple years of COVID and strict lockdown and folks hunkering down at home,” says Roberts. “We’re seeing more public outings and usage of public areas in general, from locals as well as tourism.”

The group has been collecting litter and cigarette butts each month since 2018, when the Alaska legislature approved a statewide ban on smoking in most public places. Since then, they’ve kept a record of exactly how many cigarettes they pick up. 

In just two hours this past July, a group of 10 volunteers cleaned up over 3,000 cigarette butts in downtown Sitka. On Thursday, August 4, four volunteers covered the same stretch of ground, from the Crescent Harbor playground down Lincoln Street. They picked up just over 1,100 cigarette butts. Roberts says that’s around three times the amount they picked up in August 2021.

That data lines up with the steep jump in visitor traffic Sitka’s seeing this summer. The city is expecting a whopping 480,000 cruise passengers to visit this season, following the expansion of the privately-owned Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal. That’s more than double recent pre-pandemic years, when Sitka was seeing around 200,000 cruise passengers in a typical summer season.

Hope Coalition Director Loyd Platson says by doing the monthly cleanups, they hope to raise awareness about tobacco use and prevention. 

“I walk a lot and I started paying attention to the amount of cigarette butts that are out there,” Platson says. “And so I was doing my own little survey and seeing how many steps I could go between cigarette butts. And the most that I’ve ever gotten so far is 40 steps. So that kind of gives a person an idea of how [many] cigarette butts there are out there.” 

Platson says with the increase in tourism, the Coalition hopes to install receptacles around Sitka where people can easily dispose of their cigarette butts. 

The group is always looking for more volunteers. To get involved you can call Amanda Roberts at 907-966-8745.