How AI can facilitate waste processing and boost recycling

empty bottles of plastic

The world is filled with garbage.

The World Bank estimates that 2.24 billion tonnes of solid waste were produced in 2020. By 2050, the number is predicted to increase by 73 percent, to 3 point 88 billion tonnes.

Particularly problematic is plastic. According to research from the Universities of Georgia and California, more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste were produced between the 1950s, when large-scale production of the material first began, and 2015.

Mikela Druckman is someone who won't find those statistics surprising. As the founder of Greyparrot, a UK start-up that developed an AI system designed to analyze waste processing and recycling facilities, she has spent a lot of time examining what we discard.

One facility will produce literally mountains of waste in a single day, and what's shocking and surprising is that it never stops, according to her. Waste doesn't have a season; it just keeps coming. ".

In about 50 waste and recycling facilities in Europe, Greyparrot installs cameras above the conveyor belts, using AI software to analyze what moves through in real-time.

Mikela Druckman
Mikela Druckman favors increased recycling of consumer goods.

Over the past year, AI technology has advanced greatly, and it is now capable of processing images in a highly sophisticated manner. Ms. Druckman claims that it was still challenging to train a system to identify garbage.

"A product like a Coke bottle will be crumpled, crushed, and dirty once it is thrown away, which makes the problem much more difficult from an AI perspective. ".

Greyparrot's systems currently track 32 billion waste objects annually, and the company has amassed a sizable digital waste map. Waste managers can use this information to increase operational effectiveness, but it can also be distributed more widely.

According to Ms. Druckman, "it is influencing packaging design and giving regulators a much better understanding of what's happening with the material and what materials are problematic.".

"We discuss waste management and climate change as separate issues, but in reality, they are connected because the majority of the reasons we use resources are due to the fact that we aren't actually recovering them.

"The value chain and how we use resources would be significantly impacted by stricter regulations that changed how we consume and design packaging. ".

She hopes that major brands and other manufacturers will begin utilizing the data produced by companies like GreyParrot in order to develop more reusable products.

Greyparrot's monitoring machine at the recycling plant
Using AI and cameras, Greyparrot's technology keeps track of and records what moves along conveyor belts.

Troy Swope is the owner of a business dedicated to producing better packaging. To replace Gillette's plastic razor trays with ones made of plant-based fiber, Footprint has collaborated with supermarkets as well as the company.

Mr. Swope asserts in a blog entry on Footprint's website that a "myth of recycling" is deceiving consumers.

He made a specific mention of a plastic salad container marked "ready to recycle" and inquired as to what that actually meant.

The likelihood that their used single-use plastic will end up somewhere other than a landfill has decreased, according to Mr. Swope. "Stop relying on plastics in the first place if you want to solve the plastics crisis. ".

Greenwashing is a significant issue, according to Ms. Druckman. We've seen a lot of claims about eco-friendly or green packaging, but occasionally these claims lack solid evidence and may confuse consumers. ".

UK-based Polytag covers used plastic bottles with an ultraviolet (UV) tag that is invisible to the human eye so that retailers can know whether and how many of them are recycled.

The tags are then read by a Polytag machine when the bottles are delivered to the chosen recycling facilities. The quantity of bottles is then instantly uploaded to a cloud-based app that Polytag's clients can access.

Bottles with Polytag's UV tags
Only when ultraviolet light is shone on Polytag's UV tags can they be seen.

Rosa Knox-Bradley, project manager at Polytag, says "They can see precisely how many bottles are being recycled, which is something these brands never had access to before.".

The company has so far collaborated with UK retailers Co-Op and Ocado.

The UK government, along with the governments of Wales and Northern Ireland, plans to introduce a deposit return program in 2025 in an effort to make recycling more accessible and encourage more people to do it.

This is due to the installation of "reverse vending machines" in stores and other public places where people can deposit used plastic bottles and metal drink cans and receive payment—roughly 20p per item—in exchange.

However, the race to find an environmentally friendly way to dispose of trash is still tough because it seems like a new trend emerges every year to sabotage the effort.

The series "New Tech Economy" examines how technological advancement is expected to influence the new, emerging economic landscape.

The most recent is a dependence on electronic cigarettes, also known as vapes, which are producing a huge new mountain of difficult-to-recycle electronic waste.

"It's a major issue. And it's expanding, according to Ray Parmenter, the Chartered Institute of Waste Management's head of policy and technical.

Disposable, single-use vapes, which he claims "are basically anathema to the circular economy," are the "fundamental issue," he continues.

Disposal vapes are made of a variety of components, including plastics, metals, lithium batteries, and some even have LED lights or microprocessors.

According to research conducted last year by Material Focus, a group that advocates for increased electrical product recycling, 1 point 3 million vapes are discarded each week in the UK alone. This indicates that roughly 10 tons of lithium—enough to power 1,200 car batteries—goes to waste each year.

"Deep mines, which are not the most accessible locations, are how we obtain these essential raw materials, such as lithium. Therefore, once we get it out, we need to maximize it, says Mr. Parmenter.

According to Ms. Druckman, vapes are a good illustration of the need to alter our perspectives.

"It makes no sense at all, not even economically. Asking why we have single-use vapes in the first place is a better question than how to recycle them.

She adds that consumers have a significant role to play in making products more recyclable or reusable, in addition to industry and policymakers. And "consume less" is the single biggest change they can make.

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