ByBrian Brassaw

Oct 17, 2017

Just how big of a problem is cigarette litter? The butts are tossed onto the ground at a rate of 65 percent, according to Keep America Beautiful. Approximately 258 billion cigarettes were produced in the United States in 2016.

That means roughly 167,700,000,000 cigarettes were tossed on the streets, into bushes, and washed down storm drains. That is an astounding number. So what can we do to reduce this amount of litter?

Enter Crowded Cities.

Crowded Cities is a startup out of the Netherlands that’s working on a way to solve this problem. And they’re trying to do it in a rather unorthodox way. They want to train crows to pick up cigarette butts and reward them with food.

Training Crows to Pick Up Cigarettes

Crowded Cities began when Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman noticed the sheer amount of cigarette litter in Amsterdam. They decided that together, they could figure out a way to clean up this waste.

After weighing a variety of options, they realized crows were the answer. In case you aren’t aware, crows are incredibly intelligent birds. In fact, they’re considered among the smartest species on Earth. (Seriously, you could spend a solid hour just watching YouTube videos of crows showcasing their impressive intelligence.)

When van der Vleuten and Spikman discovered Joshua Klein’s Crow Box, a box that releases peanuts when crows drop in change, they realized crows could be a great way to pick up cigarette butts.

Van der Vleuten and Spikman are now working on their own version of the Crow Box. The box is made up of a platform for the birds to stand on, a bin for them to drop the butt into, and a device to release the food. There are sensors that detect what type of object is dropped into the disposal slot so that crows are only rewarded with food when a cigarette butt is dropped in and not some other piece of trash. While their initial prototype isn’t quite ready for testing, they hope to be up and running soon. Since no one’s attempted this type of training with wild crows, this testing phase is critical.

In an interview with The Next Web, van der Vleuten and Spikman laid out the training process. First, they need to get the birds to associate cigarette butts with food. To do this, they’ll leave a cigarette butt and some food out on a platform on the box. Once the birds get used to this, van der Vleuten and Spikman will remove the food. Then, when the bird lands on the platform with the cigarette butt on it, the machine will release the food.

Once the bird becomes accustomed to landing on the platform with the cigarette and food being released, they’ll move on to the third step. Here, the food will be removed from the tray. When the bird lands, looking for food, the hope is that it will knock the cigarette off the tray into the disposal slot. When this happens, the machine will release more food. Like the others, this step is repeated over and over until the crow figures out that knocking the butt off the tray and into the disposal slot releases the food. Once figured out, they’ll move on to the fourth and final step. Here, cigarette butts are spread around the base of the machine with nothing on the platform. The hope is that the crow will figure out that it needs to pick up one of these butts and drop it into the disposal slot.

The process is certainly complicated, but if it works, it could be a fascinating way to remove a large volume of cigarette butts from the environment.

Should Crows Be Used to Pick Up Our Trash?

Personally, I have mixed feelings about this idea. I can absolutely see the benefit of having large volumes of cigarette butts removed from the environment, but I’m not so sure it’s right to train crows to do this dirty work. For one, I wonder if the crows’ health would be negatively impacted by picking up cigarette butts. Though the amount of time the cigarette spends in their mouths would be brief, I think more research should be done to see what impact it would have on them.

I also feel like the responsibility to clean up cigarette butts lies with smokers and manufacturers. Given that they’re the ones responsible for this huge amount of waste, they ought to bear at least some responsibility for cleaning it up.

Regardless of my feelings about their idea, I must give van der Vleuten and Spikman credit for coming up with a truly creative and intriguing way to clean up cigarette litter.

So what do you think, is this project by Crowded Cities a viable solution to cleaning up cigarette waste?

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

By Brian Brassaw

Brian formerly managed the Earth911 Recycling Search and shared green living tips and tricks on Earth911’s Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter accounts. Brian also shares DIY projects on Little Pilots Lounge.