AI Can Help Make Recycling Better

But only humans can solve the plastics problem

2 min read
A photo of a gripper grabbing a piece of cardboard.
AMP Robotics

Garbage is a global problem that each of us contributes to. Since the 1970s, we've all been told we can help fix that problem by assiduously recycling bottles and cans, boxes and newspapers.

So far, though, we haven’t been up to the task. Only 16 percent of the 2.1 billion tonnes of solid waste that the world produces every year gets recycled. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the United States recycled only about 32 percent of its garbage in 2018, putting the country in the middle of the pack worldwide. Germany, on the high end, captures about 65 percent, while Chile and Turkey barely do anything, recycling a mere 1 percent of their trash, according to a 2015 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Here in the United States, of the 32 percent of the trash that we try to recycle, about 80 to 95 percent actually gets recycled, as Jason Calaiaro of AMP Robotics points out in “AI Takes a Dumpster Dive.” The technology that Calaiaro’s company is developing could move us closer to 100 percent. But it would have no effect on the two-thirds of the waste stream that never makes it to recyclers.

Certainly, the marginal gains realized by AI and robotics will help the bottom lines of recycling companies, making it profitable for them to recover more useful materials from waste. But to make a bigger difference, we need to address the problem at the beginning of the process: Manufacturers and packaging companies must shift to more sustainable designs that use less material or more recyclable ones.

According to the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, more than “80 percent of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product.” One company that applies AI at the start of the design process is Digimind GmbH based in Berlin. As CEO Katharina Eissing told Packaging Europe last year, Digimind’s AI-aided platform lets package designers quickly assess the outcome of changes they make to designs. In one case, Digimind reduced the weight of a company’s 1.5-liter plastic bottles by 13.7 percent, a seemingly small improvement that becomes more impressive when you consider that the company produces 1 billion of these bottles every year.

That’s still just a drop in the polyethylene terephthalate bucket: The world produced an estimated 583 billion PET bottles last year, according to Statista. To truly address our global garbage problem, our consumption patterns must change–canteens instead of single-use plastic bottles, compostable paper boxes instead of plastic clamshell containers, reusable shopping bags instead of “disposable” plastic ones. And engineers involved in product design need to develop packaging free of PET, polystyrene, and polycarbonate, which break down into tiny particles called microplastics that researchers are now finding in human blood and feces.

As much as we may hope that AI can solve our problems for us, that’s wishful thinking. Human ingenuity got us into this mess and humans will have to regulate, legislate, and otherwise incentivize the private sector to get us out of it.

The Conversation (0)

Will AI Steal Submarines’ Stealth?

Better detection will make the oceans transparent—and perhaps doom mutually assured destruction

11 min read
A photo of a submarine in the water under a partly cloudy sky.

The Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS Virginia cruises through the Mediterranean in 2010. Back then, it could effectively disappear just by diving.

U.S. Navy

Submarines are valued primarily for their ability to hide. The assurance that submarines would likely survive the first missile strike in a nuclear war and thus be able to respond by launching missiles in a second strike is key to the strategy of deterrence known as mutually assured destruction. Any new technology that might render the oceans effectively transparent, making it trivial to spot lurking submarines, could thus undermine the peace of the world. For nearly a century, naval engineers have striven to develop ever-faster, ever-quieter submarines. But they have worked just as hard at advancing a wide array of radar, sonar, and other technologies designed to detect, target, and eliminate enemy submarines.

The balance seemed to turn with the emergence of nuclear-powered submarines in the early 1960s. In a 2015 study for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Bryan Clark, a naval specialist now at the Hudson Institute, noted that the ability of these boats to remain submerged for long periods of time made them “nearly impossible to find with radar and active sonar.” But even these stealthy submarines produce subtle, very-low-frequency noises that can be picked up from far away by networks of acoustic hydrophone arrays mounted to the seafloor.

Keep Reading ↓Show less