Ask most Australians and they’ll say the waste recycling process in their country is good, but still a bit confusing.
“I think the recycling goes well, but you hear reports that (in) some councils it just goes to landfill anyway, it’s just a bit of a gyp (stunt), you know,” says café customer Keith.
“I don’t know where it goes after we put it in the bin. I heard rumors that it all ends up in the garbage anyway and that this just doesn’t happen or maybe it does, I don’t know. I don’t actually have any information about it. I sort of feel like we do our bit on our end, but I don’t know where it ends up and I don’t know if it’s enough,” adds café customer Liz.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), close to 40 million tons of waste are recycled each year. That’s almost half the overall waste generated annually by Australians.
But the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) points out that, in the state of New South Wales alone, only 10 percent of the 800,000 tons of plastics wasted every year are actually recycled because they are not properly sorted.
One of the main issues, CSIRO says, is, for example, the wide range of plastics in existence, which makes classifying and sorting them difficult.
“The recycling process is quite complicated. Like, if you go to the supermarket or for the daily recycling you need to know how to properly place all the recycle (items), like bottles or the others, into the right bins. You need to know the labels, know the icons,” says Dr Xu Wang from the School of Electrical and Data Engineering at the University of Technology Sydney.
That in turn disrupts the circular economy by reducing the amount of recyclables transformed into new materials and products and increases landfill, which is a source of carbon emissions and land pollution.
Joining forces with the CSIRO, a team from the Global Big Data Technologies Center (GBDTC) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has come up with a new recycling bin that can do all the sorting for you automatically.
This ‘smart’ bin is not your usual, basic, plastic trash container. It integrates an arsenal of advanced technology.
“This machine can classify different (types) of waste including glasses, metal cans and plastics. And the amazing part is it can recognize different types of plastics including PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and HDPE (High-density Polyethylene). After the classification, this machine can sort the different wastes into different bins,” Wang explains.
“We combine the latest technologies including IoT (Internet of Things). We use different sensors to sense the weight, the matter, the materials. And also, we use the latest AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology. So, you can see, we have a camera and we’re running an AI algorithm to classify different types of plastics and then we use IoT and other robotics technology to sort the waste into the bins,” he adds.
Also, the more the smart bin is used the more it learns.
“We train our AI model, we train our model with hundreds of images and then the AI model can learn the features of the waste. Not only according to the brands or the appearance, it learns the whole features of the waste so it can recognize new bottles that the AI model hasn’t seen before,” says Wang.
And the bin actually does more than just sorting waste.
“The smart bin is so clever because it uses Artificial Intelligence, machine vision and robotics to help figure out what you’re actually throwing into it whether it’s glass or plastic or aluminum can, but it also has social science connected through the cloud to give you feedback to help you change your behavior so more waste goes into recycling and less goes into landfill,” says CISRO chief executive officer Larry Marshall.
For professor Yonghui Li of the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Sydney University, the smart bin is a good idea.
“At home, you know, when people put everything into the yellow bins (recycling bins), at the recycling facilities they still need to separate the bottles, so it takes out some of the labor costs. I think the good thing also is with the manual sorting, you sometimes have mistakes. The manual sorting people, using human eyes, sometimes they make some mistakes. Particularly when people have a lot of work every day, they become very tired and make some mistakes. I think the good thing with the machines is they can work 24 hours,” says Li.
“So, I think one advantage is to reduce the labor cost and also increase the accuracy,” he adds.
Businesses and individuals alike welcome the initiative, but also give some food for thought for its creators.
“Awesome. I don’t have to do it myself? One less trouble,” says café customer Veronika.
“Well, there’s a couple of items that I look at and I think ‘Which bin does that go in? I can’t decide’ so if it works it out, that would be good,” says café customer Sue.
“We have three bins so, outside some flats there’s just so many bins. There’re 20 or 30 bins. So, if they can cut the size and the number of bins down by having a multiple bin that would be great,” says Keith.
“One, how expensive is it going to be? Second, how much space is it going to take and is it hideous? And thirdly, is it efficient or is it loud and just not pleasant to be around?” reflects Raz
“You know, often these things, they tend to not work as well as, you know, the idea behind them, but if they actually worked efficiently and that there’d been a test that had been done and they were efficient, I would be all up for that,” adds Liz.
“That would be perfect. That would help a lot. Especially if we had something easy for people. Some people they walk past, like, you know, they walk in the shop, or they walk out, whatever they have in their hand they just want to throw it but when they have that kind of bin it’s much easier, much better,” says cafe owner Joe Aoun.
The research undertaken here is part of the CSIRO’s 2030 goal to reduce by 80 percent the amount of plastics that are discarded in Australia.
“It makes recycling easier and that means far more people will do it and that will reduce the waste going into landfill and increase the products that find a new life as a recycled product,” says Marshall.
According to a ‘circular economy roadmap’ the CSIRO published last year, innovations like the smart bin could triple the amount of jobs created in the waste recovery industry by encouraging the production of high-quality recycled material and the development of new markets.
The document also pointed out that AUD1 billion (USD 680 million) would be added to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if the waste recovery rate increased by just 5 percent.
The bin is a prototype and still needs a bit of fine tuning, but its inventors are already thinking of its commercialization.
Ultimately, their dream is to see smart bins in shopping centers, schools, cinemas, businesses and airports.
“And, so, the customers can just drop the waste and go. Easy,” says Wang.
With only eight years left to reach the CSIRO’s goal of 80 percent plastic waste reduction, there is also no time to waste for innovations like these to become mainstream.