In 2020, the world produced a staggering 2.24 billion tonnes of solid waste, as reported by the World Bank. If current trends continue, this already substantial amount is anticipated to surge by 73%, reaching approximately 3.88 billion tonnes by 2050.
Plastic waste is particularly troubling. Since the initiation of large-scale plastic production in the 1950s and up until 2015, a whopping 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste was generated, according to research conducted by the Universities of Georgia and California.
These statistics are far from surprising to Mikela Druckman, the founder of Greyparrot, a UK-based start-up specializing in waste management and recycling. Greyparrot has developed an innovative artificial intelligence (AI) system that aids in analyzing waste processing and recycling facilities. Druckman paints a stark picture of the ongoing issue, stating that the incessant stream of waste is alarming. She emphasizes, “In a single day, you will have literally mountains of waste in one facility coming through, and what’s very shocking and surprising is that it never stops. There are no holidays for waste, it just keeps coming.”
Harnessing the power of AI, Greyparrot has installed cameras above the conveyor belts in around 50 waste and recycling sites throughout Europe. The AI software meticulously analyzes and records the waste that passes through these sites in real-time. This process, however, is not without its challenges. Druckman points out that once an item, such as a Coke bottle, ends up in the trash, it becomes crushed, crumpled, and dirty, making the task of identifying it through AI considerably more complex.
Despite these challenges, Greyparrot’s system is now able to track an impressive 32 billion waste objects per year. Over time, the company has accumulated a vast digital map of waste. This data serves not only to increase operational efficiency for waste managers but also provides valuable insights for regulators and packaging designers. Druckman argues that understanding the impact and problematic nature of certain materials can directly influence their design.
Moreover, she emphasizes the inextricable link between climate change and waste management. “We talk about climate change and waste management as separate things, but actually they are interlinked because most of the reasons why we are using resources is because we’re not actually recovering them,” she explains. Druckman hopes that major brands and producers will eventually utilize data from companies like Greyparrot to inform the design of more reusable and sustainable products.
Troy Swope, who heads a company named Footprint, shares a similar vision. His company is dedicated to creating better, environmentally friendly packaging and has already collaborated with supermarkets and companies like Gillette to convert their plastic razor trays into ones made from plant-based fiber. Swope denounces what he calls the “myth of recycling,” contending that single-use plastic items are much more likely to end up in landfills than to be recycled.
Mikela Druckman also addresses the issue of “greenwashing,” where companies falsely claim to be environmentally friendly. She states that companies need to substantiate their claims with facts to prevent confusion among consumers.
Polytag, a UK-based company, offers a solution to this issue. The company uses ultraviolet (UV) tags to monitor used plastic bottles and determine whether they are actually being recycled. Once these tagged bottles reach the recycling plants, a Polytag machine reads the tags and updates a cloud-based app in real time. This app allows Polytag’s clients to know exactly how many bottles are being recycled.
Looking ahead, there are initiatives designed to encourage people to recycle more. For instance, the UK government and administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland plan to launch a deposit return scheme in 2025. This scheme will introduce “reverse vending machines” in shops and public spaces, allowing people to deposit used plastic bottles and metal cans in exchange for money, roughly 20p per item.
Despite these advancements, there are new challenges emerging every year. One recent trend posing a significant problem is the rising popularity of e-cigarettes, or vapes, which are creating a considerable volume of electronic waste that is difficult to recycle.
Ray Parmenter, head of policy and technical at the Chartered Institute of Waste Management, views disposable single-use vapes as a “fundamental issue,” since they are primarily composed of various materials like plastics, metals, lithium batteries, and in some cases even LED lights or microprocessors. He states, “They are basically an anathema to the circular economy.”
Data from Material Focus, an organization advocating for more recycling of electrical products, suggests that about 1.3 million vapes are discarded every week in the UK alone. This results in approximately 10 tons of lithium, equivalent to the power of 1,200 car batteries, ending up in landfill each year.
Parmenter argues that we need to maximize the use of these crucial raw materials like lithium, obtained from deep mines. He believes that a change in thinking is necessary, and Druckman agrees. “Rather than ask how do we recycle them, ask why we have single-use vapes in the first place?”
Druckman asserts that industry leaders, policy-makers, and consumers all have crucial roles to play in creating more recyclable or reusable products. The biggest change consumers can make, she states, is simply to “consume less”.
With a passion for AI and its transformative power, Mandi brings a fresh perspective to the world of technology and education. Through her insightful writing and editorial prowess, she inspires readers to embrace the potential of AI and shape a future where innovation knows no bounds. Join her on this exhilarating journey as she navigates the realms of AI and education, paving the way for a brighter tomorrow.