You finish a greasy-yet-satisfying lunch at the cafeteria, pick up the items from the table and walk to the trash and recycling bins. Like most well-intentioned people, you face a familiar dilemma. Used napkins. Leftover ketchup packets. A foam container. Wait, there’s food stuck on it. Where do they all go? Is anyone watching? Help.
We’ve all been there. And our three-second plight is part of an expensive problem that’s only piling up by the minute.
China took the world by surprise last year when it started banning imports on dozens of kinds of solid waste, including some plastics and other recyclables. The maximum acceptable contamination level in plastics and fiber also dropped to 0.5% in China, making it nearly impossible for recycling facilities around the world to quickly process sizable volumes of scrap.
The impact of those changes has been devastating, and for many private waste management companies in the US, plastic recycling is no longer a viable market. Like any other business, a recycling company needs to efficiently use available resources and have a healthy bottom line. The soaring cost of recycling has forced many local governments across the US and recycling processors to send increasing amounts of waste to landfills or incinerators.
Even in this dire situation, many environmentalists and entrepreneurs believe there’s a silver lining. China’s bold move has forced countries throughout the world to acknowledge green issues and push innovative recycling ideas toward tangible and long-term investments.
While humans could single-handedly choke our planet with waste, we may need some help to clean up the mess. Enter the robots.
One of the crucial steps in contributing toward a circular economy begins with correctly classifying what can and cannot be recycled. Even something as straightforward as a coffee cup could be complicated during disposal. Its light-weight plastic lid, paper cup and cardboard holder may appear to be recyclable components, but rules might be different for a sorting facility if it’s made of virgin tree fiber rather than paper or if it’s contaminated with leftover whipped cream.
Charles Yhap, who co-founded CleanRobotics in 2015, realized there might be a better way to sort trash than to expect high levels of awareness, accuracy and motivation from human beings—especially when recycling laws can be confusing and vary from county to county. The Pittsburgh-based company has developed an AI-powered robot called TrashBot that helps automate the separation process at the point of disposal.
“The idea was born out of frustration, of being confronted with an array of trash bins,” Yhap told PitchBook. “Waste management processes are either dirty, dull or dangerous, and it makes sense to target robotics in this industry.”
TrashBot uses cameras and sensors to scan discarded items from everyday waste—and that doesn’t mean it conveniently tosses an unfinished can of soda straight to the bin bound for the landfill. These robots can “swallow” excess liquids. CleanRobotics is focusing on high-traffic facilities such as airports, convention centers and schools, but one challenge is its technology requires waste to be thrown away one item at a time with a short delay in between. The company is backed by investors including GAN Ventures, SOSV and Innovation Works.