This Startup Would Like to Help You Recycle Right

Author: Aswin John


Have you ever approached a set of recycling and trash bins, stood in confusion for a few moments, then just guessed where to throw your item away?

You’re not alone.

Only 9% of global plastic is recycled. And less than 20% of recyclable material in the United States actually gets recycled.

But knowing what to recycle and what to toss is not intuitive.

That’s what CleanRobotics is trying to change.

Based in Pittsburgh and Colorado, this startup is developing a smart trashcan that decides whether the item you placed in their receptacle should be recycled, go to the landfill, or be composted. Their goal is to keep high-quality recyclable commodities circulating in the economy.

“It’s not always people’s faults,” says Tanner Cook, VP of Engineering and Co-Founder at CleanRobotics. “Recycling changes so heavily depending on where you’re at and even the time of year.”

Take something as simple as a plastic bottle. Complexities arise depending on whether the plastic is colored, the bottle’s crushed, or if the cap is still on.

All these variables factor into the recyclability of the bottle.

And it can be a completely different set of factors at the facility 20 miles down the road. It’s not an easy task.

So what makes CleanRobotic’s solution so different?

At face value, they’re placing a computer into a trashcan.

Within their trash can, called TrashBot, there is a system that can recognize items of waste using a complex computer vision algorithm. It then sorts the item based on those local rules.

That algorithm has taken several years to develop and won some awards, including becoming a finalist in the $5 Million AI XPRIZE.

It is still fundamentally a trashcan, but the software, hardware, and AI have to interface to create a product that reduces waste without increasing human effort.

There are currently around 20 CleanRobotics trashcans out in the world. They are accelerating manufacturing and aim to have nearly 1000 units deployed by the end of 2021.

Those units will mostly be in high traffic, public places like airports, convention centers, stadiums, and hospitals. People tend to be incredibly inept at recycling at these places – either because they’re in a rush or because they don’t know the local rules.

The smart trashcans equip these venues with a basic dashboard that provides information like how much it weighs when the bins are being taken out and how empty or full they are at any given moment.

For environmental and strategy teams, there is a separate data product that dives deeper to point out trends and improvement areas.

“What’s nice about what we’ve made is it costs just about as much as normal trashcans do,” says Cook.

By combining ease-of-use, affordability, and engineering, CleanRobotics hopes their trashcans can keep recyclable materials out of landfills.

“It’s cool being able to walk up to a trashcan that you helped write the software for, throw an item in it, and see other people doing the same,” says Cook, “And knowing that you’re making an impact on top of it is all the better.”

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