AI-assisted machines reward plastic recycling

What’s happening? Sensi has developed an AI-based machine that rewards consumers for recycling items such as plastic bottles and paper cups. The machine recognises items from their appearance and dispenses a digital voucher when the items are accepted for recycling. The Dublin-based start-up has partnered with a US firm to roll out the machines in the UK, Ireland and North America, with machines costing between €5,000 ($6,015) and €10,000 ($12,080). (Kiosk Marketplace)

How does it work? Sensi has built a data set filled with different variations of plastics and recyclable materials to inform its AI system. Traditionally, automated recycling machines categorise products based on barcodes. Sensi units, however, rely on appearance. A plastic bottle or an aluminium can, for example, can be identified by the system.

Refining the sorting process – The introduction of AI-enabled object identification could be a crucial asset in the fight against pollution, since separating plastics correctly offers a higher level of purity. This means polymers can be re-used more efficiently and would-be recycled plastic doesn’t become contaminated and sent to landfill.

Consumer awareness – Shoppers are concerned about plastic pollution, however, only 54% are recycling products. Offering incentive-based machines should be a motivator to encourage others to recycle without relying on consumers to accurately separate plastics.

UK consumers have previously responded well to reverse vending machines. A trial carried out by supermarket chain Iceland in 2018 resulted in over £30,000 worth of plastic bottles being recycled.

Pressure on supermarkets to reduce plastics could also provide more recycling channels. A recent report by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency found UK supermarkets are still contributing 900,000 tonnes of plastic – up from figures in 2017.

Other innovative solutions – Major firms are also betting on a combination of AI-enabled reward-based technology. Unilever and Alibaba, for example, have created a system to recognise plastic variations to get high-grade materials back into the circular economy. Consumers can use QR codes to earn Unilever coupons and Alibaba green energy points. The initiative aims to halve the amount of virgin plastics used to create products by grading plastics more accurately during the sorting stage.

MIT is hoping to expand beyond plastic detection with its sensor-enabled Teflon robotic-hand. The tool analyses stiffness and size to identify if a product is made from paper, metal or plastic.

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