TAMs general service officers begin cleaning up Lake Tuggeranong ahead of Clean Up Australia Day 2014.

TAMs general service officers begin cleaning up Lake Tuggeranong ahead of Clean Up Australia Day 2014. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Compared to the shopping trolleys and pushbikes hauled out of our lakes in their dozens each year, cigarette butts might seem a small problem.

However discarded butts remain Canberra's standout failure in keeping our city clean, according to two prominent Australian environmental groups, Clean Up Australia Day and Keep Australia Beautiful.

On Wednesday, Clean Up Australia Day chairman and founding director Ian Kiernan said more than 4000 ACT volunteers collected 13 per cent more cigarette butts at the annual clean-up event last year than in 2012.

Sally Gray, 61, Jerrabomberra - Click for more photos

What they said...How would you react if someone dropped litter in front of you?

Sally Gray, 61, Jerrabomberra - "In olden days, I would have said pick it up. These days I'm not sure... There's less politeness around these days." Photo: Supplied

  • Sally Gray, 61, Jerrabomberra - "In olden days, I would have said pick it up. These days I'm not sure... There's less politeness around these days."
  • Austin Harvey, 18, Yarralumla - "I'd probably just pick it up. I'd rip into them if I knew them, though."
  • Katy Ryder, 23, Adelaide - "I'd probably stare at them strangely. [But] I come from Adelaide. No one litters there."
  • Nikita Holcombe, 17, Mawson - "I'd be pretty annoyed, there's a bin every 50 metres!"
  • Neil Cooley, 60, Tasmania - "They shouldn't do it and I'll ask them to pick it up. Not worried to ask them at all."
  • Stelio Sofoulis, 78, Kingston - "They deserve what they get. My reaction in the past has been to tell them 'I think you dropped something.'"
  • Jenelle Kenner, Griffith - "I seethe, I don't like it, but I don't have the courage to approach them. I just can't understand it."

Butts totalled 20 per cent of all rubbish items collected during the clean-up event last year.

''Cigarette butts topped the list and that's a big problem … remnant tobacco and paper are pollutants but the plastic in the filter is the major problem,'' Mr Kiernan said.

Data from Keep Australia Beautiful, which does state-by-state comparisons of litter based on biannual audits, shows the ACT has a butt litter rate 21 per cent higher than the national average. In the last survey the ACT had 34 butts per 1000 square metres. The national average was 28 butts.

Keep Australia Beautiful chief executive Peter McLean said: ''This is a big challenge in the ACT's litter stream … we've seen much lower rates in the past''.

In preparation for Clean Up Australia Day on March 2, former Australian of the Year Mr Kiernan and TAMS Minister Shane Rattenbury briefly oversaw the clean-up around the Tuggeranong Lake jetty.

Mr Kiernan said almost a quarter of all trash picked up at Clean Up Australia Day last year came out of rivers and creeks. Waterways were home to the highest average number of rubbish items per site at the clean-up, he said.

Mr Rattenbury said the quality of our waterways was unsatisfactory. ''There's no doubt that we've got a problem with the waterways … We've got a big job to do to turn around the quality of Canberra's lakes over a number of years,'' he said.

TAMS lakes officer Joel Kelly said on top of general litter such as bottles and cans, some of the more unusual items dumped in lakes included supermarket trolleys and pushbikes. Up to 30 trolleys and a dozen bikes could be found in our lakes at a time, he said.

''The trolleys build up pretty quickly around the town centres.''

But Mr McLean said 2013 statistics showed the ACT did not fare badly when comparing its pollution rates to other states. ''Overall there are a number of states with a lot more pollution … It was good to see a very small reduction of litter in the ACT last year.''

Mr Rattenbury said events such as Clean Up Australia Day continued to change attitudes in Canberra. ''I think it's done an enormous amount to educate Australians about the consequences of littering.''