Today is America Recycles Day, a national initiative of Keep America Beautiful. Thousands of events to promote and educate people on recycling are taking place all across the country, and many more of us (67.5K at last count) have pledged to increase our recycling efforts to help raise the national recycling rate above its current 20 percent.

Although efforts to recycle have continued to increase over the last 30 years, there is still a tremendous amount of recyclable material that ends up in landfills due to a combination of human error, contamination, and high processing costs. The problem is that recycling is just not that easy. In fact, it’s rather confusing.

Take a simple disposable coffee cup. Where does it go: a regular trash can or the recycling bin? The answer is both, or neither, based on its composition and where you happen to be at any given trash-disposing moment.

Let’s break down said cup, complete with a lid and cardboard insulation sleeve.

  • Cup: Landfill-bound waste bin (yes, even paper cups go here due to their clear, liquid proofing coating)
  • Lid: Recycling bin…if you’re lucky. (This ultimately depends on the type of plastic it is made from and where you are. You’ll need to know these two factors before walking up to a recycling bin.)
  • Sleeve: Recycling bin, maybe, assuming it hasn’t been contaminated by spilled coffee or the chocolate icing from your doughnut. (products with food or grease can destroy entire batches of recycling material)

(See Earth 911’s post on recycling these kinds of cups)

Making the wrong disposal choice for any of these components leads to much bigger problems at scale: the contamination of the recycling stream and perfectly recyclable materials going to the landfill (often the latter the result of the former). In 2013, approximately 300 million tons of waste ended up in landfills, triple what it was 30 years ago. That’s about one million 747 jet planes worth of trash going to landfills every single year in the US alone.

So what can we do?

This year on America Recycles Day, we want to share CleanRobotics’ plan for making recycling easier and increasing the recycling rate worldwide.

Introducing TrashBot

TrashBot is the world’s first “smart” waste bin that automatically sorts your recyclables from everyday trash. By combining next-generation robotics, advanced sensor technology, and the Cloud, TrashBot not only categorizes your unwanted materials, it can audit your waste generation, let you know when it’s full, and can be wirelessly updated if there is a change in your community’s recycling program.

How does TrashBot work?

TrashBot has a single opening for all trash. Simply walk up to a TrashBot (programmed specifically for the municipality you’re in) and toss your garbage into the open chamber. The lid closes and you walk away. Once the item is inside, a combination of cameras and sensors quickly scan the type of discarded material. Using a custom machine-learning algorithm, TrashBot then makes a classification. A mechanical flap system deposits the item into either the single stream recycling bin or landfill waste. A weight sensor then keeps track of the amount of recyclable material and landfill waste on a daily/weekly basis for accurate waste auditing; a particularly helpful feature for businesses who perform waste monitoring and/or those with green initiatives.

The more waste collected by TrashBots, the better. TrashBot’s sorting accuracy is designed to improve over time as it learns to detect more and more types of materials. Data from TrashBot’s first pilot at a technology company in Pittsburgh showed results of 81% sorting accuracy after only very basic training. If TrashBot can help divert even a modest 60% of the total trash into the recycling stream, just imagine how many hundreds of millions of tons of waste we can keep out of landfills.

A single TrashBot has the potential to replace all conventional trash and recycling bins we currently use. From corporate workplaces to stadiums and ball parks to universities, schools, airports, grocery stores, restaurants, malls, and even airplanes. The practical applications for TrashBot are endless. With accurate, automated separation of recyclables at the source, communities could even begin utilizing multi-stream recycling instead of single stream.

Where we are now

Earlier this year, CleanRobotics was accepted into HAX, a world-renowned hardware accelerator in China. There, we built our first prototype and subsequently conducted a successful pilot of Trashbot.

With our first pilot wrapped up, we are working on implementing a re-design with the current prototype to make it better, faster, and more robust. After implementing what we learn from our second round of pilots at the Pittsburgh International Airport and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we will build our production version of TrashBot.

Contact us if you have any questions…or would like to pre-order TrashBot! We are always looking for feedback from people in the recycling industry, too:

In the meantime, please take part of today to educate yourself on new ways you can help increase your own recycling rate, review your community’s recycling regulations, and sign the pledge on the America Recycles Day website!

Happy Recycling!

-The Team at CleanRobotics

CleanRobotics, founded in 2015, is a Pittsburgh based robotics company committed to making recycling smarter. Our mission is to build robotics that can help give us a cleaner, greener tomorrow.