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Is Technology the Future of Recycling?

Technology is in everything you see and do. It creates the TV images and digital billboard signs you see and the phones you tap away at. It only makes sense that it would begin to find a home in the sustainability field — and more specifically, recycling.

Recycling, Image Credit:

Many people try to recycle, but their efforts don’t always pan out like expected. Maybe the city doesn’t offer enough bins within walking distance, or local programs are complicated and take only a few types of waste. People aren’t recycling as much as they could be for various reasons, but tech can help with that.

Robots, software systems and tech-based garbage containers streamline recycling for both everyday citizens and the factories who process their disposables. Innovations in the design and placement of waste bins make sustainability easier to uphold without much thought or effort. The future of tech is bright, and with new and ingenious ideas, it can extend its efficiency to waste management processes around the world.

The Reality of Recycling

People around the world produce tons of waste each day, with most of this material ending up in dumps rather than recycling plants. A report from World Bank projects global waste production to rise to 2.59 billion tons per year by 2030. Landfills are the source of many health hazards due to storm runoff and gusts of wind carrying debris into nearby bodies of water. As landfills run out of space, trash will end up in more drinking water sources, destroying the few existing untouched reservoirs.

Citizens need to increase their recycling to stop this, but so do industrial giants. If more companies recycled and reused their materials, they could reduce their energy usage. Most building and packaging materials expend more energy to produce from scratch than to recreate from an existing product. Steel, glass and reclaimed wood are a few of many substances that fit the bill — and they’re in abundance across much of the world.

Most glass and steel products already contain significant portions of reused material. Encouraging companies that specialize in wood products to do the same will shrink deforestation rates and preserve the habitats of numerous ecosystems.

People need education on recycling in addition to incentive programs and shiny tech innovations. Not everyone knows what objects they can and can’t put in the bin. Flexible plastics like toothpaste tubes, utensils and straws shouldn’t undergo recycling because they’re too fragile — their quality will degrade. Putting unrecyclable material in collection containers makes it harder for workers to sort through waste, leading to less effective sustainability. A combination of education and useful tech will send conservationism to further heights.

Artificial Intelligence

Some waste management facilities have introduced intelligent robots to work alongside humans and improve recycling. Cameras and computers guide the movements of these machines and train them to recognize bits of trash. The robots use their recognition capabilities to deposit waste into the proper containers. Artificial intelligence has become superior in its ability to identify specific objects. You see this demonstrated in your smartphones through facial and fingerprint recognition tech.

Robots can categorize the textures, images and colors of different types of waste — fewer plastics mixed with metals or paper. They achieve this ability through machine learning. Computer engineers program them with millions of neural networks. Scientists train these networks for specific tasks before combining them, and once the channels merge, they work together and learn from one another. It’s akin to the neuroplasticity in a human brain — always adapting by deleting or synthesizing connections.

These robots work much faster than humans, which anyone would expect with such advanced tech. The danger of being injured doesn’t exist as it does with human workers, enabling robots to work at high speeds without error or interruption. Scientists will continually develop new avenues for efficiency and practicality as AI becomes an intricate part of environmentalism.

Many current robots have difficulty identifying black objects depending on the kind of visual recognition systems they have. Improvements in machine vision tech can eventually diminish this problem and make robots more prevalent within waste facilities.

Infrared Laser

Many waste facilities have adopted infrared laser beams to help them sort garbage — mainly plastic waste. These beams detect what a specific plastic is composed of and then use an air-powered mechanism to blow it into the appropriate recycling bin. NIR spectroscopy identifies the infrared spectrums of different polymers, separating polypropylene from high-density polyethylene and so on.

This technology makes recycling much more precise and reduces the risk of mixing materials that don’t combine well. Many people think they’re doing good by throwing plastic into a bin, but not everything is recyclable in the same way. A facility might not recycle bottles and PVC piping together, for example, because every type has a distinct melting point and chemical composition. Combining them can lower a product’s quality compared to the originals.

Plastic resin codes categorize each type of plastic you find in everyday materials, giving you clues on what’s recyclable and what’s not. PP, LDPE and PS are examples of labels you’ll encounter, and each symbol carries a number from one through seven. Learning about the different kinds will make you realize that not all of them are recyclable, such as polystyrene or low-density polyethylene. NIR lasers identify and sort these difficult plastics out at waste collection sites, which helps create better-quality recycled goods.

A study of a NIR spectroscopy system that analyzed 186 samples revealed this tech has a 97.5% accuracy rate in discerning plastics. NIR lasers can serve as a low-cost and highly effective substitute for hyper-spectral imaging.

Automated Vehicles and Receptacles

You’re already familiar with your local garbage trucks and their large mechanical arms. These mechanisms enable trash collectors to gather waste without getting out of the vehicle, improving efficiency and reducing injuries. Most of these trucks come with GPS tracking, sensors, and interior and exterior cameras for comprehensive safety. However, they also possess another helpful feature — RFID tracking.

Garbage trucks and trash containers both possess RFID trackers, which measure how much waste a single home produces. These trackers also give data on the truck’s garbage route, the number of items in a bin and how many houses there are. Neighborhoods in several U.S. cities use this information to establish recycling incentives and charge people for waste pickup. The less trash a home produces, the less money they have to pay — which encourages them to recycle more.

Envac trash receptacles have risen in popularity among automatic waste collection systems. Individuals deposit refuse and recyclables — plastic, organic matter, cardboard and general scraps — into these vacuum-enabled bins. Underground pipes transport the trash away from the location to a collection station at another point, where workers manage large waste containers.

Envac trash collectors are relatively small, odor-free and low-maintenance, which enables landlords to implement them in residential areas. These systems are most common in Europe, where bin shelters and lorries have previously posed safety risks. With automated collection systems, residents can effortlessly dispose of waste without traveling to disposal sites. Improved accessibility will encourage more people to recycle.


Gasification refers to the process of turning solid waste into biofuel in the form of synthetic gas. Scientists consider this gas — called Syngas — to be clean energy, as it possesses none of the pollutants of fossil fuels. It consists of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and the process also generates glassy rock. Unlike most recycling methods, gasification doesn’t require facilities to sort and categorize waste types. Everything undergoes conversion together.

Workers place paper, plastic, yard scraps and more into a low-oxygen heating chamber. This container produces high temperatures capable of breaking materials down into their foundational elements, leaving nothing behind but Syngas and rock. The low-oxygen environment prevents the waste from releasing dioxins as it breaks down — a significant contrast to greenhouse gas-producing incineration.

Various industries use the resulting Syngas to create green fuel and electricity. It can substitute for natural gas in situations where businesses seek to decrease their air and water pollution rates. Many agriculturists use it to produce fertilizer and chemicals. The glassy rock finds many applications in abrasives, cement, roofing materials and more. Every product of gasification is reusable, making it one of the most eco-conscious ways to manage waste.

Numerous ways to achieve gasification exist. Some gasifiers handle only municipal garbage while others take on construction and demolition waste. Plasma gasifiers make the technique more efficient by reaching temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, boosting the rate of material breakdown. Bubbling fluidized-bed gasifiers are currently the most utilized type, though they require extra preparation before workers can place feedstock in the machine.

Combining Waste and Tech to Make Treasure

These recycling innovations can make conservationism accessible to all while preserving the planet’s health. Recycling is much more than sorting trash or throwing objects into a receptacle. It embodies efficiently removing and reusing harmful waste to improve global living conditions. Scientists, researchers and everyday people can build a better quality of life for all with less plastic clogging the ocean and fewer piles of waste occupying landfills.

Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!

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