The tobacco industry produces a lot of cigarettes, and that leads to a lot of filters discarded on the ground. According to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, we end up with 1.69 billion pounds of them each year, making cigarette butts the most common type of litter. Plenty of creative solutions, from musical ash trays to roads made from cigarette waste, have been proposed in the past. Now, a new startup is developing a strategy that takes advantage of something that’s already a part of our cities. As The Next Web reports, Crowded Cities wants to train urban crow populations to pick up our cigarette butts.
We already know that crows enjoy picking at the garbage humans leave on the ground and in cracks and crevices. Crowded Cities founders Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman wondered if they could redirect this habit and turn crows into tiny garbage collectors. Training crows to do something as specific as identifying and transporting cigarette butts isn’t as crazy as it may sound. The corvids are among the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom—they’re capable of using tools, nursing grudges, and even holding funerals.
But even if crows were capable of learning the task, the team needed to find an efficient way to train them. That’s when they came across the Crow Box: an open-source project designed by Joshua Klein that acts like a vending machine for crows. Whenever a crow deposits a coin in the device, it rewards them with a peanut, thus teaching the birds to hunt for change. Spikman and van der Vleuten adopted this concept, swapped butts for the coins, and renamed it the Crowbar.
The training process starts by attracting crows to the machine with a piece of food next to a cigarette butt. Knowing that a snack will always be there waiting for it, the crow is conditioned to return for more. After this step repeats a few times, the food is moved inside the device and isn’t made available to the crow until the moment it lands. The animal now knows that the machine can give it food in response to its actions.
At a certain point, the Crowbar stops releasing the food automatically. The only way for the crow to get fed is by nudging the cigarette butt into the receptacle. If it’s able to figure this step out, the idea is that it will start scouring for cigarettes elsewhere as payment for its meal.
The project is still a far way off from becoming a reality in major cities. Crowded Cities is looking for ways to fund trial runs, and if those are promising it will still need to conduct research into the harmful effects cigarette butts may pose to crows. As for the skeptics who don’t believe crows can pull off such a sophisticated feat, the startup’s founders encourage them to take a “Sunday morning to browse through some crow videos on YouTube.”
Here’s one example they selected for your viewing pleasure.