Recycling of packaging, especially coffee cups, has been a hot topic for years. And with over seven million cups used every day in the UK alone, it looks like one that’s not going away any time soon, unless companies and public authorities start to do something about it.

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Technology and product development company Cambridge Consultants is the latest private sector player to look at tackling the issue, with the development of a new smart bin unit that is capable of  identifying the principal material in a coffee cup, or potentially any plastic or paper packaging, placed in front of its cameras, allowing consumers to dispose of it in the appropriate bin. The team have also envisaged an integrated app, allowing people to track what they’ve recycled and how often.

Cambridge Consultants head of food and beverage development Sajith Wimalaratne and technical marketing specialist Dave Gladwin explain the thinking behind the technology and discuss why recycling rates are so difficult to raise.

Elliot Gardner: Why did you decide to tackle the recycling problem?

Sajith Wimalaratne: This recycling issue has been around for many, many years. We’ve got council bins and recycling centres, but in the US and the UK less than 50% of packaging is actually recycled, and that’s appalling in this day and age, when we have the established infrastructure. We wanted to see how technology can improve this situation, and trying to understand why the recycling rates are so low.

The main reason we came across is that people are confused by the different types of material that can be recycled. Two things look the same but one is recyclable and one isn’t, or they’re both recyclable but they have to go to different parts of the recycling infrastructure. It’s confusing.

A lot of people think that coffee cups can be recycled but in actual fact they can’t. Some can in a special manner, but can’t go into the normal facilities.

There’s also the problem that there are no real incentives to recycle, other than our guilty conscience. So we wanted to see how technology could close these gaps and improve the situation.

Dave Gladwin:  We’re finding that generally people want to be green, but are equally baffled. How much of your life do you spend looking at the bottom of packets and containers trying to find the little recycling symbol? If you could wave a magic wand and instantly know whether something can be recycled or composted and find out exactly what materials it’s using, that would be great.

EG: Is the technology just for use with coffee cups?

SW: The technology doesn’t so much look at the product, but rather the material the product is made of.  The unit has four bins in it; one is PET, one PP, one compostable, and the last one is ‘other’ for general waste. It identifies the material through image recognition and machine learning, and then guides the consumer to putting it in the right part of the bin.

You put the cup in front of the two cameras that are built into the system; it takes two photos and then the LED lighting around the appropriate section of the bin lights up. It segregates the material in the first instance.

EG: How do the cameras differentiate between the materials? How is it more accurate than the naked eye?

SW: When you take a photo, there’s a lot of information in there that you can’t see. For different materials the pixels are different, and the material reflects light in a different way. The unit takes all that information and then feeds it into a neural network, which is a computer system that is modelled around how the brain works.

You have to teach it things. You show the bin what a PET bottle is; it learns that and the next time it sees a PET bottle, it will know it is PET and to light up that part of the bin.

DG: The system is not keyed to a particular type of material or anything like that. It has a training phase that it goes through. We present it with, say, a water bottle. We show it the right way up, lying down, upside down, with a label, without a label. Every time you show it to the system you tell it that this is a PET bottle, and the more times that you show it and the more types of bottle that you show, then the more accurate its model becomes over time – and it’s the same with coffee cups.

EG: Is the whole unit itself able to be produced relatively cheaply?

SW: That’s the good thing about this technology – it uses very cheap off-the-shelf technology. It doesn’t need these high-density, high-definition cameras; it just uses simple, low-cost, off-the-shelf technology in an innovative manner.

It can be replicated and developed further very cheaply. It’s a bin at the end of the day, so you can’t put a lot of cost into it. The most expensive thing on it at the moment is the computer that runs the algorithm, and we can see how we could implement it without a computer, and have cloud systems running it.

EG: You’ve mentioned a connected app – how would such an app work?

DG: The brand is also gathering additional information. They now know the journey that that product has actually made between the outlet and where it is the consumer disposed of it. And you are demonstrating that you are taking responsibility about the end of life of products. There’s a big push from the press and consumer groups for companies to become greener.

You might be a person who goes into costa and buys a product with an app on your phone, and you dispose of your cup sometime later in a bin – you can get loyalty points for the fact that you have disposed of your cup.

SW: It could be through a connected app, or could just be a tap of the phone on the bin to say that it’s you through low-energy blue-tooth technology. And then once it knows that you’ve disposed of the product correctly it could give a voucher or a donation to a charity. We’ve kept it quite open, but giving a reward is the platform. If they don’t want to sign up for the app to avoid the ‘big brother’ idea, you can just not use the app. You can just use the bin; it’ll still tell you where to put your rubbish.

And you can build up a profile for the consumer and give them extra information. You can talk about their reduced carbon footprint, or the amount of trees they’ve saved on the app. You can keep their historic data for them and say ‘you have contributed this much of carbon neutral elements’. You can educate the consumer about the benefits of recycling. You could even gamify it. You really need to think of all those different dimensions if you want to improve the recycling situation. All of the challenges need to be approached from all directions. Everything needs to work together.