The “Rubbish Youths” have picked up nearly 10,000 cigarette butts from Sihanoukville’s Ochheuteal Beach over the past two weekends, after launching a campaign to collect one million butts from Cambodia’s coastal areas to keep the beaches clean.

The Rubbish Youths started as a group of some 30 young people from Phnom Penh who spent months removing litter from the filthy Boeung Trabek canal in the capital’s Chamkarmon district.

Last month, they were finally able to claim that the canal was rubbish-free and residents were now disposing of their rubbish in an orderly manner.

The official Rubbish Youths Facebook page said last week that the cigarette butt clean-up campaign is being conducted every weekend by volunteers from Preah Sihanouk Province and Phnom Penh.

In the last two weeks, the group has amassed 9,856 cigarette butts, picking them up by hand one-by-one and storing them in bottles.

“The official name of the campaign is ‘Mission To Collect 1,000,000 Cigarette Butts from Cambodia’s Coast’, Rubbish Youth member Phal Sopheak said on Wednesday.

Sopheak, 29, said the group started the campaign after seeing the vast number of cigarette butts left behind by Cambodian and international tourists and residents.

“Our target is not only to pick up one million cigarette butts. We want the Chinese and Cambodians to stop throwing their cigarette butts in coastal areas.

“They should put them in a proper place, like in a bottle of water. We don’t want any cigarette butts lying around the beach,” he said.

In mid-July, Rubbish Youths founder San Dara Vit wrote on his Facebook page that cigarette butts contain chemicals that can harm marine life and anyone swimming in the sea.

“The cigarette butts take years to decompose. They contain chemicals that become food for fish in the ocean,” he said.

According to Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organisation headquartered in Washington, DC, cigarette butts are by far the biggest source of trash found on beaches and waterways around the world.

Cigarette butts are mostly made of cellulose acetate and contain several toxins, such as cadmium, lead and arsenic, and in the water, they break down to microplastics and release toxins in the surrounding waters.

When a cigarette butt enters the water, it starts leaking these substances within hours and the consequences are deadly for the fish and other marine life.

The UN Development Programme in Cambodia praised the Rubbish Youths’ activities on its Facebook page on July 23.

“#DoYouKnow that a cigarette butt takes 10 years to degrade? To help clean up the beaches in Sihanoukville, last Sunday [July 21], San Dara Vit and his Rubbish Youth team collected around 5,000 cigarette butts in Ochheuteal Beach. They will do it again next Sunday,” the organisation wrote.

Provincial administration spokesman Kheang Phearum said the contribution of Cambodian youth was vital for the authority.

“The authority always supports this type of activity. The government always encourages contributions from young people, the private sector and other institutions to protect the environment."

“We have the same vision, which is to have a clean and healthy environment, particularly in coastal areas. The provincial authority applauds the actions of the Rubbish Youths,” he said.

Rubbish Youth members continue to walk along beaches collecting cigarette butts and hope even more people will join in.

“We want beautiful scenery, clean air and a zero-trash zone to attract more tourists to the province,” Dara Vit said.