Sweden recruits crows to clean up cigarette butts from its streets

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Billions of cigarette butts are discarded on Swedish streets each year, representing the most common type of littering in the Scandinavian country. Smokers leave this litter everywhere, from bus stations to narrow alleys. Since they’re so widely distributed across the entire city, clean-up is a never ending and expensive uphill battle. But this is where smart crows may come in.

Corvid Cleaning, a startup from Södertälje, near Stockholm, is on a mission to rid Swedish streets of annoying cigarette butts. To this aim, they’ve recruited some unlikely sanitation workers.

The startup is currently running a pilot program in Södertälje in which New Caledonian crows are trained to pick up butts off the street and deposit them in a special machine, which hands out a small food reward for every butt.

Crows are some of the most intelligent creatures in the world, not just of the bird kingdom. They use tools, which they’ve crafted themselves, to reach otherwise inaccessible food; remember people’s faces and even hold grudges; understand water displacement better than some human children, as well as the concept of zero, and solve highly complex puzzles involving intricate steps. 

In comparison to their previous brainy feats, cigarette butt retrieval is easy pickings for these clever corvids. The startup founders are also banking on crows’ propensity for learning through observation when doing so benefits them, in this case by gaining easy access to tasty food. A handful of trained crows could turn into a swarm of cigarette butt-retrieving birds.

All the birds involved in this project are not being held in captivity, so they’re free to abandon the project at any time. For all intents and purposes, the crows are volunteering for this role.

If all goes well in this pilot program, the initiative could be extended to the whole of Stockholm, a city of nearly two million. It all hinges on how effective and financially feasible the program proves to be. Corvid Cleaning claims implementing the project across the city could cut cigarette butt cleanup costs by 75%.

“The estimation for the cost of picking up cigarette butts today is around 80 öre [Swedish change] or more per cigarette butt, some say two kronor. If the crows pick up cigarette butts, this would maybe be 20 öre per cigarette butt. The saving for the municipality depends on how many cigarette butts the crows pick up,” Christian Günther-Hanssen, the founder of Corvid Cleaning, told The Guardian.

A similar project was tested in 2017, in the Netherlands, and in 2018, at the Puy du Fou theme park in ​​Western France.

It remains to be seen whether this creative plan will pan out as intended. In the meantime, we can’t help noticing that it is easier to train birds to pick up cigarette butts than it is for humans to learn not to discard them on the street.

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