A crisp fall breeze breaks through the overwhelming musk of Montucky Cold Snacks and burning tobacco. A steady crowd fills the picnic benches lined up outside the East Side Denton bar, where it seems the whole town has come for a drink this Monday evening. It’s difficult to hear anything other than clinking beers and drunken laughs as the bartender serves another round to the table of college kids taking study breaks that are way too long.
A distracted gaze crosses Michael Kokkinakis’ face as he scans the pub, eyes begging for another hit when boom — spotted. Two tables over, a tall gentleman flicks his still-burning Camel cigarette onto the gravel, paying no mind as he cracks another mediocre joke to his colleagues who respond with forced laughter.
Gloves back on, Kokkinakis snakes his way through to the scene, picking up a few butts here and there. “Hey, buddy, I think you meant to throw this away,” he says as he hands the cigarette butt back to the man, who looks confused but nonetheless complies by tossing it into an ashtray.
Fast-forward a year, when the COVID-19 pandemic puts many things on pause but not these regular Monday evening festivities for Kokkinakis and his crew, who run Better Understanding Through Trash Service (BUTTS) by dedicating their time to sweeping the streets of Denton every week, searching for misplaced cigarette butts.
“When you see a piece of garbage float by, you can either care or not care,” Kokkinakis said. “You either do something about it or not do something about it.”
BUTTS dismisses the second choice as an option. This group of about 10 meets “every Monday, rain or shine” at 6 p.m. to collect trash left behind on the sidewalks and lawn that make up the downtown Denton Square.
“There’s a little shot of dopamine every time I see a cigarette butt, and I pick it up,” Kokkinakis said. “My eyes zoom into it.”
Come rain, shine or pandemic
When the pandemic first hit and lockdowns were put in place, the town grew extremely silent as many Denton businesses closed either temporarily or for good. Despite the ghost town feel, the crew never misses a Monday pickup and continues to commit to its service.
“It was interesting because there were fewer butts, which was nice — a little more boring, but it was a good thing,” said BUTTS co-founder Mary Poe. “It’s crazy that as things opened up, we would see more and more butts.”
Founded on Earth Day 2019, BUTTS has evolved into a force that not only takes care of the environment but also uplifts local activists and creatives. Founders Kokkinakis, Poe and Calvin Lebaron combined their passions for environmental sustainability to create a collective force that focuses not only on picking up cigarette butts but also on using their platform to elevate artists.
When the Black Lives Matter protests started on the Square early in the summer, there was restricted access to power outlets needed for speakers to amplify their voices, recalled Lebaron, so the group invested in a solar-powered generator to support the activists. “We thought the best way we could contribute was to give power to them,” he said.
On some of their Monday meetings, the crew invites local bands and musicians to perform on the Square as random pedestrians stop by to groove to the tunes of the week.
“It feels good to get out and feel like you’re doing something for the community,” Poe said.
Lebaron and Kokkinakis met in college and studied under the same classical guitarist. Their shared love for music blossomed into the unique group they established. The two paid homage to their beloved professor by creating music together and booking small gigs to share their passion, just as their professor did with them, Lebaron said. “Music is what brought us all together into BUTTS.”
Poe explained that several of the recruits for BUTTS are people who just happened to stumble across the crew during a downtown deep cleanse of cigarette butts. The crew has grown from just the trio of friends to more than a dozen members in over a year, though occasionally random people will pitch in.
“I’ve met a lot of friends just from people walking by who just come out and join us,” Poe said. “We call it our meditation time. You go off into your own world.”
On Saturday nights, the crew gets together to host small “raves” on the downtown Square where they jam for hours, inviting anyone to join from 7-10 p.m. and allowing more opportunities for musicians to showcase their talent.
“It allows everybody to be a part of the process,” Lebaron said. “It’s turned into this wonderful family of musicians, non-musicians and DJs.”
Lebaron, Kokkinakis and Poe put their organizing skills to the test, planning what was meant to become the first BUTTS Fest, featuring more than 40 bands and art collectives. The festival, though more than ready to be celebrated, was scheduled to take place at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in March 2020 but was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“Everyone was so on board for this,” Kokkinakis said. “This was the biggest thing I had ever organized in my life. I was so excited for everyone to have a good time.”
The group has been planning a socially distanced outdoor music event for later this month as a belated Earth Day celebration. BUTTS Fest, billed as “A One (g)love Happening in Denton,” is slated for April 24 featuring bands including Helium Queens, Mother Tongues, Strays, Python Potions and No Good Babies, DJs and free masks. There’s a pre-party with DJs the night before, too.
The crew still dedicates every Monday evening to sweeping Denton streets for butts they will send either to a TerraCycle drop-off location or to reusable projects that will repurpose them for items such as sound panels for recording studios.
“It starts feeling better the more you do it, and then people start noticing,” Kokkinakis said. “It’s not just a little thing, it adds up.”