Can Animals Be Trained to Become City Cleaners?

Crowded Cities

A Dutch startup wanted to train crows (yes, crows) to pick up cigarette butts in public space.

Every year, around 6,000,000,000 cigarettes are being thrown on the streets in the Netherlands. Cigarette butts have become the most common type of litter that is also highly difficult to clean up. If not properly disposed, it takes them up to 10 years to break down. A variety of creative solutions has been proposed, yet a startup, Crowded Cities, developed the unorthodox idea to train urban crows to pick up the cigarette butts.

Crows are among the smartest members of the animal kingdom, hence, the idea of training them may not be as crazy as it sounds. According to studies, they’re capable of using tools, nursing grudges or even holding funerals. They also respond well to reward systems, so training them shouldn’t pose many difficulties.

Crowded Cities proposed the concept of a ‘CrowBar’, based on a similar open-source design developed by an American inventor. The fully automated machine dispenses food to a small table once a crow places a cigarette butt into a funnel-shaped shoot. As the smart system only works with discarded cigarettes, this vending machine for birds effectively teaches them to look for filters.

Crowded Cities
Developing the CrowBar prototype. Photo Crowded Cities

Although Crowded Cities have completed the CrowBar, the project itself has been put on hold. In the words of the initiators, “we talked with experts, companies and public institutions, but we had to conclude we have too few resources to continue the project.” Nevertheless, the startup introduced a highly interesting idea to fight litter on the streets and in nature.