South Jersey veteran determined to clean up 35,000 cigarette butts off the streets and raise awareness for lung cancer

Jim Alturo, of Cinnaminson, N.J., is donating one penny to the American Lung Association for every cigarette butt he picks up.

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Jim Alturo picking up trash

Jim Alturo, 70, picks up cigarette butts in the parking lot of the Cinnaminson ShopRite near his home. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Jim Alturo is ready for the hunt. He’s dressed in a bright yellow reflective vest and a pair of gloves and has a grabber tool in hand. In a ShopRite parking lot just off Route 130 in Cinnaminson, N.J., Alturo gets a small metal trash can from his trunk.

He pries open the lid, which had been tightly screwed on. And it quickly becomes clear why. What’s inside reeks.

“Ooh,” he says as he wrinkles his nose. “I don’t know if you can smell it.”

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A bag of collected cigarette butts
Jim Alturo holds up a day’s worth of cigarette butts. He keeps them stored in tins to contain the smell. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Undeterred by the stench, he proudly shows off several small translucent garbage bags inside of the trash can – each filled with hundreds of discarded cigarette butts that Alturo has found littered on the ground within the past week.

“It’s amazing how folks don’t realize that there are a lot,” he said. “A lot of folks believe people have stopped, but people are smoking. At shopping centers, malls, Wawas, people before they go in, they want to kill their cigarette and throw it out.”

Alturo goes out to collect cigarette butts every day for about two hours all over his South Jersey community.

Alturo collected over 24,000 cigarette butts in 2023, and now this year, he’s launched a national fundraising campaign – Jim’s Cigarette Butt Challenge – for the American Lung Association to raise more awareness about the environment and the risks of smoking.

Jim Alturo picking up trash
Jim Alturo of Cinnaminson holds up a cigarette butt as he makes his daily rounds. The 70-year-old Air Force veteran has made it his mission to clean up his South Jersey neighborhood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I hope to get this across the country, not just in the tri-state area,” he said. “Because the more folks get involved, the cleaner our community is, and we take the cigarette butts off the street.”

Alturo, 70, grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. He later joined the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and was stationed in Arizona for several years. He returned to Philadelphia, where he did office work for various companies for over 40 years before retiring.

He started walking outside more for health reasons. That’s when he noticed all sorts of trash on the ground, particularly cigarette butts, he said. So, he started picking them up.

“And then last January, I decided I was going to do something. I started counting them. Don’t ask me why,” Alturo said as he stopped to grab a cigarette butt off the pavement. “Oh, that’s a nice big one. That’s almost a full one.”

Jim Alturo picking up trash
Jim Alturo, 70, picks up cigarette butts in the parking lot of the Cinnaminson ShopRite near his home. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For every butt he collected last year, Alturo donated one penny to the American Lung Association. With his new fundraising campaign, other people can now contribute to support his efforts. The goal is to raise $35,000 and pick up 35,000 cigarette butts this year.

“He really is doing a service getting those cigarette butts off the ground,” said Caroline Hutchinson, executive director of the American Lung Association. “He’s one person, and it’s just amazing with how much he can accomplish.”

Cigarette butts are the most discarded waste item worldwide, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. They account for an estimated 1.69 billion pounds of trash each year.

That might surprise many people, Hutchinson said, given that cigarette smoking has been steadily declining in the United States for the last 50 years.

Still, the CDC estimates that 10% of adults in New Jersey and 15% of adults in Philadelphia smoke cigarettes. Smoking makes someone about 15 to 30 times more likely to develop and die from lung cancer compared to people who do not smoke.

Jim Alturo
Jim Alturo shows off the $119.06 he found while picking up trash and cigarette butts last year. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For Alturo, the message is simple: keep cigarette butts and trash out of the environment and be aware of the dangers of smoking.

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He keeps himself entertained with little rhymes and tunes while walking along local highways and streets.

“My famous one I say to myself as I’m walking is, ‘See trash, pick it up, all the day you have good luck,’” Alturo said.

A handheld clicker
Jim Alturo uses a clicker to keep track of his daily cigarette butt count. His goal is to pick up 35,000 butts this year and raise $35,000 for the American Lung Association. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The thousands of cigarette butts Alturo has already collected haven’t diminished his daily enthusiasm for getting outside and cleaning up some more.

“I know folks think it’s kind of crazy to be excited. I get excited when I find the first one,” he said. “I’m like, all right, I got my first one. It’s in the books, and keep counting.”

Alturo stores his growing butt collection, each day’s yields in an individual bag, in a trash can outside on his deck.

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