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Crows trained to clean up cigarette butts on Swedish streets

A crow sits on a garbage can in this file photo. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Tired of cigarette butts littering their streets, one Swedish city is handing over the solution to the birds.

A startup company in the city of Södertälje, near Stockholm, has designed a machine that will feed crows a little bit of food for every cigarette butt they bring back and deposit in the device.

The company, Corvid Cleaning, believes their device could help save the city money when it comes to cleaning up the unsightly refuse.

In fact, founder Christian Günther-Hanssen told The Guardian he expects that crows could cut the city’s butt removal budget by 75 per cent.

The Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation says the city of Södertälje spends about $2.7-million on street cleaning per year, and that more than one billion cigarette butts are flicked onto Sweden’s streets annually.

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Günther-Hanssen told Swedish online news site The Local that he only uses wild birds for his business and that any participating crows are “taking part on a voluntary basis.”

He said because crows are so intelligent, they can be trained quite quickly using a step-by-step method.

“They are easier to teach and there is also a higher chance of them learning from each other. At the same time, there’s a lower risk of them mistakenly eating any rubbish,” he said.

Sweden isn’t the first country to attempt the crows-as-sanitation-workers scheme.

In 2018, six crows were trained to pick up cigarette butts at a theme park in France. Rather than the crows being brought in as permanent employees, though, it was part of a larger educational campaign to prompt humans to throw their butts in the trash.

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Read more: Photo of seabirds sharing a cigarette butt sparks anger over ocean garbage

However, the president of the theme park, Nicolas de Villiers, told the New York Times that they had to be careful with how much they made the crows work.

“They don’t play the game if they work too much,” he said, explaining that the birds are clever and need to have mental stimulation and puzzles to solve, in order to thrive.

A 2017 Dutch campaign, called “Crowbar,” also attempted to train crows to pick up cigarette butts for a food reward, but officials decided to end the project in 2018 when they concluded that they “couldn’t get a clear picture of what the effects would be on the crows and the environment.”

Cigarette butts are among the most common forms of human-made pollution worldwide.

Read more: Lethbridge teens awarded grant funding for cigarette butt litter initiative

Nearly two-thirds of the 5.6 trillion cigarettes made each year are dumped irresponsibly, according to advocates with the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project. Many of those cigarette butts end up in the world’s waterways.

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The success of Corvid Cleaning’s ambitious pilot project in the long-term will come down to financing, Tomas Thernström, a waste strategist at Södertälje municipality, told The Guardian.

“It would be interesting to see if this could work in other environments as well. Also from the perspective that we can teach crows to pick up cigarette butts but we can’t teach people not to throw them on the ground. That’s an interesting thought,” he said.

with a file from Josh K. Elliott

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