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Lake Phalen's 'Butt Man' is on a mission

Roger Svendsen has rid the St. Paul park of more than 600,000 cigarette butts
Credit: Boyd Huppert, KARE
Roger Svendsen shows of his haul from one day of collecting cigarette butts.

ST PAUL, Minn. — His eyes dart from side to side.

Left to right.

Port to Starboard.

Roger Svendsen walks the 3½ mile path around Lake Phalen. “I'm pretty good at spotting them,” he says.

Roger is on a hunt for butts.  The cigarette variety.

“You've got to see ‘em to get ‘em,” he says. “They don't come jumping out.”

Roger bends at the waist as he picks up another.  “I got three,” he says proudly.  The search has just begun.  

Credit: Boyd Huppert, KARE
Roger Svendsen searches for cigarette butts at the edge of Lake Phalen

Nearly every morning – spring, summer, winter and fall - Roger leaves his home a couple blocks from the lake with butts in his head.

“Passionate and persistent,” Roger’s wife, Anu Sharma, calls her husband.

“Sometimes he's gone for an hour, sometimes he's gone for four or five hours,” Anu says.

Butts exposed.

Butts in cracks.

Roger has a knack for finding them.

“Lake Phalen Butt man,” Anu says with a laugh. “That’s his title.”

It’s a funny moniker, Roger takes seriously.

If this day is typical, by the time he makes it home, Roger will have collected between 300 and 500 butts.

His daily record: 3000.

“I tell him that he doesn’t have to do it every day,” Anu says. “But he’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Monday morning, there’s going to be a big bounty out there.’”

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE
Anu Sharma says her husband has a big heart for helping

Cigarette Butts are the world's most littered item.  The organization Keep America Beautiful says two out of three cigarettes smoked, are then tossed on the ground.

Roger thinks often about the mindset of someone who would litter a park with a cigarette butt. “I think they think they're so small,” he says, “that they'll just dissolve and go away.”

Butt - they don’t.

Today's plastic cigarette filters last longer than ever. They are packed after use with the tars and nicotine from which they are designed to protect smokers.

A video Roger saw years ago got him thinking.

“They put one cigarette butt in a fishbowl and it killed the fish,” Roger says.

The fishbowl experiment caused Roger to think about the fish in Lake Phalen.  What might the impact be of thousands of cigarette butts washing into the lake?

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE
Roger Svendsen collects cigarette butts from beneath a park bench.

Roger is feet from the lake when he spots a pair of smoked and discarded cigarettes beneath a park bench occupied by a woman.

“Can I go underneath you,” he politely asks the bench's occupant. “You don’t have to move, just let me grab the butts.”

Roger veers off the lake path to walk up and down streets leading to the lake. When it rains, he says, butts on those streets wash directly into the lake.  

But, according to Roger, Lake Phalen’s parking lots are the worst.  

“They're one great big ash tray,” he says.

On a recent Tuesday, Roger’s plastic bag swelled with hundreds of butts. Twenty-four hours later, he’ll be back, picking up hundreds of new ones.

“Oh, it discourages me,” Roger admits, “but it also makes me think, ‘God, somebody's got to do something to help this.’”

Credit: Sage Passi
Roger Svendsen posed with his collection of cigarette butts, before his family convinced him to dispose of them.

Two years ago at a community gathering, Roger displayed the nearly half-million butts he had stored in his garage.

Not long after, Roger’s family intervened.

“The garage stunk,” Abu says. “It wreaked.”  

Not that Roger was ready to let them go.  He considered them visual evidence of the problem.

“It was begrudgingly,” he says. “My family just confronted me, and they just said, ‘Get rid of them!’”

Today, Roger collects only data – carefully counting, then logging, each day’s harvest in a notebook that dates back 10 years to when he started his retirement obsession.

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE
Roger Svendsen keeps logs of his daily harvest of cigarette butts.

“So far this year we've got 20,707,” Roger says, referring to his notes.  “I’m at 616,000 total since I began.”

Roger pauses, laughs, and adds, “That’s a lot of butt picking.”

Anu shakes her head when she thinks about the work behind that number.

“One lake, one park, one man,” she says, “and over a half million butts.”

The butts that bother Roger most are those he picks up where children are playing. 

“I've seen on playgrounds, little kids picking them up and playing like they're smoking,” Roger says. “I mean, it just saddens you.”

The grandfather has had a soft spot for children clear back to his army service in Vietnam, where he volunteered during his off hours at a local orphanage.

Credit: Roger Svendsen
Roger Svendsen volunteering at an orphanage during his service in Vietnam.

“He's got an amazing heart,” Roger’s wife says. “He's all heart.”

So, when Roger Svendsen fills his butt bag, only to walk the same path the next day and fill it again - he’ll be okay knowing he will never get ahead.

 “I guess I have felt that I'll do what I can and so be it,” Roger says.  

Unless societal attitudes change, this man devoting to butts will forever be working behind.

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Watch more Land of 10,000 Stories on our KARE 11 YouTube channel. 

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