Cigarette butts contain carcinogenic chemicals, pesticides, and nicotine, and most filters are made up of plastic fibres (cellulose acetate). Accordingly, the 5.6 trillion cigarette butts that are littered into the global environment each year (Healton et al 2011) have a large – and negative – effect on the environment.
Whilst cigarette butts may be small, they contain materials that are not biodegradable and are littered in large volumes, which is proving detrimental to the environment. Damage from this includes bio-accumulation of poisons up the food chain and harm to water supplies (ANRF 2017). However, a Dutch start-up called Crowded Cities have come up with a design solution to combat the impact of tobacco waste on the environment.
Crows are highly intelligent animals and are able to make and use tools. Using this knowledge, and taking inspiration from the design ‘The Crow Box’, industrial designers Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman came up with the idea of the Crowbar; a device that teaches crows to pick up cigarette butts in exchange for food. When a crow brings a cigarette butt to the Crowbar and drops it into the funnel, the device recognises whether it is in fact a cigarette butt and then dispenses a bit of food for the crow to take.
Hypothetically, the crow will continue to collect cigarette butts in return for food and let other crows know to do the same. Thus, the Crowbar proposes a solution to the major problem of littered cigarette butts by harnessing nature to do most of the work, and creating a mutualistic relationship between local crows and the machine. The next step for researchers will be to examine how collecting cigarette butts affects crows, i.e. whether carrying the butts in their mouths will have a negative effect on them.
However, substantial issues and challenges arise from the design: for instance, the Crowbar would have to be purchased by a local council; the machine would need to be set up, supplied with food and emptied of butts on a regular basis; and wild cows would initially need to learn how to use the Crowbar. As different crows learn at different speeds and in different ways (Crow Box n.d.), potentially the Crowbar would have to be implemented in different ways depending on where in the world it is being used.
Future potentials permutations of the Crowbar could include collection by the crows of other small pieces of litter, including gum, various plastics, etc. The machine could either encourage locals to litter less, but it also has the potential to validate their littering, and incentivise them to litter, as they may feel like they are helping or feeding the crows by producing waste for them to clean up.
ARNF 2017, Cigarette Butt Waste, viewed 12 December 2017, < http://www.no-smoke.org/learnmore.php?id=731>
Crowded Cities n.d., The Crowbar, viewed 14 December, <http://www.crowdedcities.com/>
Healton, C.G., Cummings, K.M., O’Connor, R.J. 2011, Butt really? The environmental impact of cigarettes Tobacco Control, viewed 12 December 2017, <http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i1.citation-tools>
The Crow Box n.d., The Official Crow Box Kit, viewed 14 December, < http://www.thecrowbox.com/>