Scan the sidewalk outside any bar or coffee shop in Canada and you’ll almost surely find small piles of discarded cigarette butts. But what would happen if smokers were promised a refund if they brought back all those filters?

A doctor in Vancouver is proposing an interesting solution to the litter problem: a deposit program.

The idea might sound strange, but then again, offering refunds for empty beer or wine bottles once seemed odd, too.

Dr. Stuart Kreisman, an endocrinologist at St. Paul’s Hospital, first proposed the idea in a letter to the editor of his local newspaper back in April. He argued a deposit program would be a great way to deal with the estimated 1 million butts that are littered on the streets of Vancouver alone every day.

"The amount of cigarette-butt littering is just staggering,” he tells CTV British Columbia.

Last weekend, an activist group called the West End Cleanup decided to test whether a deposit system would work.

It got a $500 grant from The Vancouver Foundation and held a cigarette butt buy-back program during its Car Free Day last Sunday, offering one penny for each butt returned to its booth, or $20 per pound of butts.

"The response was overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming,” says West End Cleanup co-organizer John Merzetti.

In just a few short hours, the booth had run out of cash, with eager butt collectors bringing in more than 60,000 used filters. The group plans to send the haul to TerraCycle, the only company in Canada that recycles cigarette filters.

Riding on that success, Kreisman would now like the city or even the province to adopt a wider cigarette-butt deposit program. He says the system could be run just like a bottle deposit program.

He notes cigarette filters are made of a plastic foam called that can take up to 10 years to decompose. And if the butts find their way into waterways, they leach toxins that can hurt marine life.

"Putting a value on cigarette butts would lead to the elimination of cigarette litter," he says.

It would also force smokers to see stubbing out cigarettes on the sidewalk with their feet as just another form of littering.

"Our ultimate goal of the program is to get butts off the street,” says Kreisman.

The group has set up a petition at calling on the province to implement a cigarette-butt deposit system.

The province’s environment ministry says it has no plans to set up a program, but Vancouver city councillor Adriane Carr plans to bring up the idea at an upcoming council meeting. Carr says she will bring forward a motion for the mayor to get the province involved in setting up a cigarette-deposit program.

"If you put a small amount of money into the incentive to return something, people get motivated by it,” she says.

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Scott Hurst