Artificial intelligence technologies can be used to help buildings and spaces track their waste in real-time and engage users by nudging them to correctly sort their waste. According to a study by the World Bank, 98% of the world's waste is sent to landfills, dumped into oceans or being incinerated, even though a high majority of daily consumables are recyclable. This is primarily due to the high level of contaminants found in recyclables, making previously clean material practically unrecyclable and financially unmarketable. In Toronto, for every percentage point decreased in contaminated waste can create up to $1 million in recycling cost savings every year, which can be attributed to the management and sorting costs incurred by the waste hauling and collection companies. Intuitive is a Canadian company which seeks to achieve zero waste through their AI solution, Oscar.
Oscar is a trash-sorting system with a 32-inch display and AI-powered camera that recognizes the items in your hand and tells you how to properly dispose of them. Approach with a Thai noodle box, for example, and it will tell you to throw the remaining food into compost and put the box in the trash. Succeed in sorting your garbage and Oscar can say "Good job!," shower the screen with confetti, and share a QR code for some sort of perk, like a movie ticket or food discount. Get it wrong and Oscar can be a real grouch, making sounds of disapproval and displaying a dark red screen with a sign that calls you out for the mistake. Oscar was created by Intuitive AI, a startup with plans to sell its solution to corporate social responsibility teams and property managers in busy settings such as airports, universities, and large corporate campuses.
This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. It has been a year since China jammed the works of recycling programs around the world by essentially shutting down what had been the industry's biggest market. China's "National Sword" policy, enacted in January 2018, banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for that nation's recycling processors, which had handled nearly half of the world's recyclable waste for the past quarter century. The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem--and this one not of its own making. In the year since, China's plastics imports have plummeted by 99 percent, leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed.
Humans have been building machines to separate waste into different streams of different value requiring differing processes for decades. Until recently, we were mostly failing to do it well enough to be worth the investment. Instead, millions of people globally manually sort trash, sometimes with developed country workplace safety standards, sometimes living in developing country trash fields and scraping a living out of them. In London in the 1850s, when the population was roughly 3 million, a thousand rag and bone men plied their trade, greasy bags over their shoulders or slung on rough carts, picking through the detritus of the city to find enough items of value to allow them to pay for their lodging and food. In 1988, the World Bank estimated that 1-2% of the global population made most or all of its living picking through waste.
Constructed from various forms of household waste, including garbage bags, the art piece, sent from Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture, was not exactly fearsome. But the message was clear -- the world needs to tackle the problem of plastic waste. The issue, especially that of marine plastic waste, was one of the key discussions at the Karuizawa summit, and it will be again at the G20 leaders' summit, which kicks off in Osaka on Friday. During the meeting, which was also attended by energy ministers, each country committed to gathering and sharing their data on ocean plastic waste with an eye toward establishing international best practices to deal with the problem. "Innovative and breakthrough technologies should be created to deal with plastic waste," Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada said, citing the need for member countries to collaborate with non-G20 countries, local governments, nongovernmental organizations and academia.