AI trained to recognize waste for recycling – BBC News

  • By Jane Wakefield
  • Technology journalist

image source, Getty’s image


The amount of waste produced globally per year is difficult to fathom

There is a lot of trash in the world.

About 2.24 billion tons of solid waste were produced in 2020, according to the World Bank. It said the figure is likely to increase by 73% to 3.88 billion tons by 2050.

Plastic is very problematic. From the start of large-scale production of the material in the 1950s to 2015, more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste were produced, according to research calculations from the Universities of Georgia and California.

Someone who wouldn’t find those statistics surprising is Mikela Druckman. He has spent a lot of time looking at what we throw away, as the founder of Greyparrot, a British startup that has created an AI system designed to analyze waste processing and recycling facilities.

“In one day you’re going to have a pile of trash in one facility coming in, and what’s really shocking and surprising is that it never stops,” he said. There’s no holiday to waste, it just keeps on coming.”

Greyparrot placed cameras on conveyor belts at around 50 waste and recycling sites in Europe, leveraging AI software to analyze what passes through them in real-time.

image source, Mikela Druckman


Mikela Druckman wanted consumer goods to be much more recyclable

AI technology has come a long way over the last year, and its ability to process images is now very advanced. However, Ms Druckman said it was still difficult to train the system to recognize trash.

“A product like a Coke bottle, once it’s in the trash, gets crumpled, crushed, and dirty, which makes the problem much more complicated from an AI perspective.”

Greyparrot’s systems now track 32 billion waste objects annually, and the company has created a massive digital map of waste. This information can be used by waste managers to become more operationally efficient, but it can also be disseminated.

“This allows regulators to have a better understanding of what’s going on with the ingredients, what ingredients are problematic, and also influences packaging design,” said Ms Druckman.

“We talk about climate change and waste management as separate things, but really they are intertwined because a big part of the reason why we use resources is because we don’t actually restore them.

“If we have stricter rules that change the way we consume, and the way we design packaging, it will have a huge impact on the value chain and the way we use resources.”

He hopes big brands and other manufacturers will start using the data generated by companies like GreyParrot, and eventually design more reusable products.


Greyparrot’s technology uses AI and cameras to monitor and record what passes through the conveyor belt

Troy Swope runs a company intent on making better packaging. Footprint has worked with supermarkets, and with Gillette to convert its plastic razor trays to ones made from plant-based fibres.

In a blog post on website Footprint, Mr Swope claims that consumers are being misled by the “recycling myth”.

He referenced a plastic salad container labeled “ready for recycling” and asked what that actually meant.

“It’s unlikely that their single-use plastics that are dumped end up anywhere but landfills,” Mr Swope wrote. “The only way out of the plastic crisis is to stop relying on it in the first place.”

So-called greenwashing is a big problem, says Ms Druckman. “We’ve seen a lot of claims about eco-friendly or eco-friendly packaging, but sometimes those claims aren’t backed up with real facts, and can be very confusing to consumers.”

To help retailers know that used plastic bottles are actually being recycled, and in what quantities, British company Polytag covers them with ultraviolent (UV) tags invisible to the human eye.

When the bottles then arrive at the designated recycling plant, the tags are read by the Polytag machine. The number of bottles is then uploaded to a cloud-based application in real time, which can be accessed by Polytag customers.


UV Polytag tags can only be seen when exposed to ultraviolet light

“They can see exactly how many bottles are recycled, something these brands have never had access to before,” says Polytag project manager Rosa Knox-Bradley.

So far the company has teamed up with UK retailers Co-Op and Ocado.

To make it easier for people to recycle, and encourage more to do so, the UK government and administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland will launch a return on deposit scheme in 2025.

This is due to the existence of “vending machines” located in shops and other public areas, where people can store used plastic bottles and metal drink cans, and get paid to do so – around 20p per item.

The quest to find planet-friendly ways to get rid of trash remains an uphill race, however, it seems like every year a new trend emerges to make the wrench work.

The New Technology Economy is a series that explores how technological innovation is orchestrated to shape the new emerging economic landscape.

The latest is the addiction to e-cigarettes, or vapes, which are creating new piles of e-waste that are difficult to recycle.

“This is a big problem. And it’s getting bigger,” said Ray Parmenter, head of policy and engineering at the Chartered Institute of Waste Management.

He added that the “fundamental problem” was single-use vapes, which he said were “basically anathema to the circular economy”.

Exhaust vapes are made up of many materials – plastic, metal, lithium batteries and some even have LED lights or microprocessors.

Research last year from Material Focus, an organization that campaigns for more recycling of electrical products, showed 1.3 million e-cigarettes were disposed of per week in the UK alone. This means about 10 tons of lithium goes to landfill each year, enough to power 1,200 car batteries.

“The way we get this important raw material like lithium is from deep mines – not the easiest places to get to. So once we get it we need to make the most of it,” Parmenter said.

Vape is a good example of how we need to change thinking, says Ms Druckman.

“It doesn’t make sense economically, it doesn’t make sense. Instead of asking how do we recycle it, ask why do we have disposable vapes?”

While industry and policy makers have a big role to play in making products more recyclable or reusable, so do consumers, he added. And the biggest change they can make is “eat less.”

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