From being called a stochastic parrot to the evolution of its species, artificial intelligence is now addressing a significant gray area–waste plastic. Greyparrot, a UK start-up understands the importance of a circular economy and has created an AI system designed to analyze waste processing and recycling facilities.
Founded in 2019, the team of Greyparrot experienced entrepreneurs and AI experts is on a mission to digitize the $1.6 trillion waste management industry and tackle the growing waste crisis head-on.
With a vision to create a world where every piece of waste is valued as a resource, its founder Mikela Druckman told the BBC: “In a single day, you will have literally mountains of waste in one facility and it just keeps coming.”
How it works
After having developed a wide digital map of waste, Greyparrot cameras in conveyor belts at around 50 waste and recycling sites in Europe, analyze waste materials in real time and the systems now track 32 billion waste objects per year.
Greyparrot’s digital map can not only be used by waste managers to become more operationally efficient, but it can also be shared.
Druckman said initially it was hard to train an AI system to recognize rubbish from the images captured. From an AI standpoint, she shared an example of a dirty, crumpled and crushed Coke bottle that was very hard to identify.
However, she said, “it is now allowing regulators to have a much better understanding of what’s happening with the material, what materials are problematic, and it is also influencing packaging design.”
According to the World Bank, approximately 2.24 billion tons of solid waste was produced in 2020 and that figure is likely to reach 3.88 billion tons by 2050, a sharp rise by 73%.
While more than 80% of the world sewage discharged into the environment untreated, there has been no systematic accountability to date when it comes to how waste is managed.
Research from the Universities of Georgia and California added that more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste was produced from 1950s until 2015 in large-scale production of the material.
With the desire that big brands and other producers will start using Greyparrot data and ultimately design more reusable products, she added: “Climate change and waste management are actually interlinked because most of the reasons why we are using resources is because we’re not actually recovering them.
“If we had stricter rules that change the way we consume, and how we design packaging, that has a very big impact on the value chain and how we are using a resource.”
AI helped in identifying. What next?
Greenwashing and the myth of plastic recycling
Greenwashing has become a big problem, said Druckman and added that: “We’ve seen a lot of claims about eco or green packaging, but sometimes they are not backed up with real facts and can be very confusing for the consumer.”
Now, with a focus on better packaging, Footprint has worked with Gillette to convert its plastic razor trays to those made of plant-based fiber. In a blogpost, it shared how consumers are being misled by a “myth of recycling.”
With reference to a plastic salad container that was labelled “ready to recycle,” co-founder and CEO at Footprint, Troy Swope, wrote: “It’s less likely than ever that their discarded single-use plastic ends up anywhere but a landfill. The only way out of the plastics crisis is to stop depending on it in the first place.”
The greenwashing el-uv-iation
Enabling a circular economy, UK firm Polytag is showing the world how simple modifications in packaging of a plastic bottle can make a difference. Eluviation means removal of dissolved or suspended material from soil by the movement of water when rainfall exceeds evaporation.
At a time when greenwashing has exceeded real green claims, Polytag is removing the fake layer by adding an ultraviolet tag to a bottle that’s not visible to the naked eye. When the bottle reaches a recycling plant, the tag is read by a Polytag machine and the real-time data gets uploaded on a cloud app. This helps retailers and customers know if a used plastic bottle has in fact been recycled and in what numbers.
Rosa Knox-Bradley, project manager of Polytag, which has worked with UK retailers Co-Op and Ocado, told the BBC: “They can see exactly how many bottles are being recycled, which is something these brands never had access to before.”
Not just plastic
With the rising addiction to single-use e-cigarettes or vapes made of plastics, metals, a lithium battery among others, a large amount of electronic waste is gradually taking the shape of a mountain and is hard to recycle.
Druckman feels that it’s high time thoughts need to be changed as “it doesn’t make any economic sense”. “Instead of thinking how to recycle these vapes, ask why single-use vapes are in use in the first place.”
Focused on making products more recyclable and reusable, the Greyparrot founder feels besides consumers, “industry and policymakers have big roles to play” in a circular economy and the biggest change can be brought is by “consuming less.”
In the UK alone, 1.3 million vapes are thrown away per week, according to Material Focus research last year. Annually, this garbage collects some 10 tons of lithium that comes from deep mines and is enough to power 1,200 car batteries.
An important point
However, Vijayanand Gejji, Practice Head - Sustainability Engineering and Cost Management CoEs at HCLTech, moved a step ahead and raised another issue. He believes electrification of car batteries, especially those in electric vehicles (EVs) can be achieved using green renewable energy and microgrids, and questioned the EV battery challenge.
He said: “With a high rate of EV adoption happening now, the upcoming problem lies with the batteries when they reach a certain threshold of usage. These will not be fit for use in any passenger car or vehicle due to safety and performance factors. What will be the future of these millions of tons batteries from a sustainability perspective?”
“Besides traceability of their life, how do you repurpose them? Can you create a power grid out of all those batteries and provide a power backup to a place battling with unreliable power infrastructure for continuous power? It’s like giving a second life to batteries to make the EV ecosystem sustainable,” he added.
“Repurposing existing resources along with real-time data from smart objects using technologies like IoT, big data and AI, effectively manages and is impactful in the formation of a circular economy,” he added.
Backed by government
In 2025, the UK government and the Wales and Northern Ireland administrations will launch a deposit return scheme to make it easier for people to recycle and earn money. People will deposit used plastic bottles and metal drinks cans in reverse vending machines at shops and other public areas for which they will be paid.
While autonomous drone WasteShark scoops up over 1,000 pounds of waste daily before being swept away by the sea in England’s North Devon Coast already, the decision-makers will hopefully be able to address the vapes issue as well.