The robots are coming (to recycle...)

Go on, be honest. How many times have you stood frozen in the kitchen, holding a container from last night’s Pad Thai in one hand and an old blueberry yoghurt pot in the other? Which one goes where? Can you recycle the foil lid? Do you think it’s socially acceptable to chuck the yoghurt pot in with the regular trash, and do you have to be at work in three minutes so you’re losing the will to care?

Recycling is crucial. Earlier this month a record-breaking deep sea dive found a plastic bag in the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Animals are being found dead stuffed with plastic straws and coffee cups. At the rate we’re generating single-use plastics, we’re damaging the natural environment far too quickly for it to sustainably survive. Unless we change. 

This is why it’s essential we engage in effective recycling waste management. The truth is, we generate too much waste as a population for traditional waste management to be effective anymore: that's around 1.3 billion tonnes of waste each day. Is there a way to recycle more sustainably? Using AI to effectively manage waste management could be the solution.

Plastic landfill

The World Bank predicts that by 2025, we will generate 2.2 billion tonnes of waste a day. AI has to play a role in change as it’s the only way we can sift through such giant amounts of rubbish on such a large scale. Climate crisis is already here.

Mark Hall, CEO of Business Waste points out that if everyone did their bit in the first place, there’d be no need to recycle. “If manufacturers didn’t create products that didn’t need to be recycled, then we wouldn’t need recycling at all.”

To be honest if everyone did their bit, if we didn’t have manufactures creating products that can’t be recycled then we wouldn’t need to recycle. is the waste company that hates waste, we want to prevent it and divert it all away from landfill. It should work like the following: prevention, re-use, recycling, recovery, and disposal.”

AI, or artificial intelligence, is a system that has the ability to learn and develop itself from experience, rather than being programmed by a human to do something. And in the world of recycling, it’s already being used to good effect.

ZenRobotics are hoping they have the answer. They're a world leader in waste separation, and in 2011, the Finnish company began to use AI to manage waste more efficiently. Their solution? A robotic waste sorter. They programmed the robot to identify elements that could be recycled from the factory belt, and these were then removed and sorted. Data supplied from sensors, 3D laser cameras and spectroscopic cameras to identify what can and can’t be recycled. The robots are used across 10 different countries.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Plastics

Robots are also being physically used in waste disposal centres. They are able to work non-stop and use AI to sift through mounds of rubbish. The robots use computer vision systems, which are adept at recognising if something is recyclable or not.

And, if you’re one of those people who constantly finds themselves questioning whether to recycle a dog food can or not, then breathe easy.

Headshot of Mark

Hall says: “AI is already here. It’s in smart bins that use sensors and cameras to split the waste into compartments so the only waste that is suitable goes to landfill and everything else is sorted into the right recycling box. It’s also in use at recycling plants with machines that sort recycling waste can learn from touch and weight for example so it can sort which grade plastic something is.

The Mechatronics Systems Engineering company, at Simon Fraser University, designed a way to transform waste management and businesses by designing smart bins. These bins can sort the rubbish out once it’s in the bin. Using sensors, the bin uses data to decide what to do with the rubbish and where it should be sorted to. Depending on what it has decided, the bin sends the rubbish to the appropriate location, whether that’s a dump or a recycling centre.

And it’s not just home and office recycling that’s revolutionising the status quo. San Francisco company Compology aims to use AI to motivate businesses to recycle better by building technology into dumpsters and skips. Data is then collected from the receptacles and information is shared about what items have been incorrectly placed. They can then see which businesses or restaurants are putting the wrong items in the rubbish bins and encourage them to change.

Such measures may seem dramatic, but when we’re dealing with billions of tonnes of recycling generated each day, we need to act now. It’s vital that we get an army of people and machines on board to combat climate crisis.

For more information about recycling, check out Virgin Unite to see how they're trying to change the world, one project at a time


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