The Reverse Vending Machine That Feeds Stray Dogs

Istanbul, Turkey, is the largest city in Europe by population, with 15 million residents. It’s also home to a very large population of stray animals, with an estimated 400,000 dogs roaming the streets and a similarly large number of cats. The stray population has been a longstanding problem for the city — and some of the solutions have been disastrous. For example, in 1911, the governor of the city ordered all of the strays to be brought to a nearby island called Sivriada, and as Wikipedia’s editors note, the efforts did not go well: “About 80,000 dogs were killed during the ordeal, mostly due to hunger and thirst on the barren land of the island, and some due to drowning as they tried to escape the horrible conditions of the island. A severe earthquake which immediately followed the event was perceived by the locals as a punishment by God for abandoning the dogs.”

For the century since, officials and citizens alike have been looking for ways to help support (if not control) the stray population in a humane way. In 2012, the government considered a bill to euthanize a large percentage of that population, but citizen outcry stopped that in its tracks. The public’s attitude toward the stray dog population shifted dramatically over the years, and today, as the Washington Post reports, quoting documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Lo, “People really see a dignity in the dogs, they see them as fellow citizens, as belonging to their streets and communities.”

Which is why, in 2014, a company named Pugedon introduced the machine below.

That’s a vending machine of sorts. Instead of dispensing bottles of water, it asks you to “pay” by inserting an empty bottle into the slot at the top. And if you do, out comes dog food. As Time explains, “The benefits of the vending machine are supposed to be twofold: encourage recycling and feed the city’s strays. Recycling is put on top and food is dispensed out the bottom within easy reach for animals in need. There’s even a water dish attached so users can pour the remaining water from a plastic bottle before recycling it. The recycled bottles are supposed to cover the cost of the food.” And that’s a win-win, because Turkey has poor plastic recycling rates. According to Duke University (pdf), “Of the 3.7 million tons of plastic waste is generated or imported into Turkey, an estimated 6% is recycled. Of the remainder, 61% goes to landfills and the remaining 33—over 1.1 million tons—remains uncollected or is openly dumped.”

In 2017, Pugedon earned an Index Award, given to companies that “use design to solve problems that matter.” The machines proved so popular that Pugedon installed dozens if not hundreds more. (Their corporate website notes that they’ve “carried out joint projects with 182 municipalities and 3 ministries” and have “exported to 17 countries and we created distributions in 8 countries,” but I’m honestly not sure what that means.) One of those machines is in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, and it’s been a huge success. According to Mahmet Tadri, a city hall representative, “before this machine was set up, stray animals went through the trash. However, they now come here and eat, and subsequently, the neighborhood has become cleaner” due to reduced litter and fewer raided trash cans. And it was good for the dogs, too — per Tadri, “the mortality rate of stray dogs has fallen by 10 to 12 percent” since the machine was installed in Ankara.

Bonus fact: In 2017, a company in India was discovered to have been illegally dumping industrial waste and dyes into a local river near Mumbai. The key clue? Stray dogs. As the Guardian explains (and yes, there’s a picture of one such dog), people in the area noticed that a handful of stray dogs had turned light blue, and posted some images to Facebook. The local authorities investigated and shut down the offending company. Per the Guardian, “an animal welfare agency managed to capture one of the dogs and wash some of the blue dye off. The group concluded that animal seemed unharmed in all other ways.”

From the Archives: Meal Ticket: Moscow’s stray dogs don’t have vending machines, but they know how to use public transportation.