To tackle the issue of cigarette butts pollution, a start-up company in the Swedish city of Södertälje, near Stockholm, has designed a machine that feeds crows food for every cigarette butt they bring back. 

The Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation says that more than 1 billion cigarette butts are left on Sweden’s streets each year, representing 62% of all litter. Södertälje spends 20m Swedish kronor (£1.6m) on street cleaning.

Christian Günther-Hanssen, the founder of this company (called Corvid Cleaning), told The Local news outlet that “They’re wild birds taking part on a voluntary basis.” This probably means that the devices are only used for free wild birds who have learnt how to operate the machines to get some food, as opposed to captive birds trained in captivity with “blackmailing” methods (no work, no food). 

Most scientists agree crows have an intelligence closer to human intelligence (all animals are intelligent within their life circumstances so intelligence is a relative term), so they can easily learn how to solve human puzzles without any coercion. They are also likely to learn from each other.

The issue of whether this project is animal exploitation, and therefore should be rejected by ethical vegans, very much depends on how the birds were trained and the deal they get. If no captive birds were used in the development of this idea and the crows are just wild birds that have discovered the devices by themselves and have figured out how they work by observing humans or other birds operating them, the project could be vegan-friendly if the amount and quality of food they receive are “fair” for their efforts and nutritional needs. In other words, if they are not “paid” with lower rewards than a human worker would normally receive for the same task, relatively speaking. 

If the councils using these methods save money “employing” these crows without adding hardship to human workers losing any paid work (because the cleaning-crows end up picking more cigarettes butts than their human counterparts would ever do), and the cash saved by employing them is used to improve the lives of the crow community (by building nesting sites and providing extra food in winter), this could be a project that many vegans could approve. Otherwise, it seems that “training” humans to stop smoking, or if they still smoke, to stop throwing the butts on the floor, seems more ethical and efficient. 

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.