Robotic garbage sorting

The modern world is producing, purchasing, and disposing of consumer products at an ever-increasing rate. This is hardly news to anyone. Two other facts are also well-known, to anyone who's stopped and thought about them for even five minutes of their life. First, that our planet Earth only has a finite reservoir of raw materials, which is constantly diminishing (thanks to us). And second, that we first-world consumers are throwing the vast majority of our used-up or unwanted products straight into the rubbish bin, with the result that as much as 90% of household waste ends up in landfill.

When you think about all that, it's no wonder they call it "waste" .There's really no other word to describe the process of taking billions of tonnes of manufactured goods — a significant portion of which could potentially be re-used — and tossing them into a giant hole in the ground (or into a giant patch in the ocean). I'm sorry, but it's sheer madness! And with each passing day, we are in ever more urgent need of a better solution than the current "global disposal régime".

Cleaner alternatives

There are a number of alternatives to disposing of our garbage by way of dumping (be it in landfill, in the ocean, underground, or anywhere else). Examples of these alternatives:

  1. We can incinerate our garbage. This does nothing to pollute the surface of the Earth; however, it does pollute our air and our atmosphere (quite severely), and it also means that the materials we incinerate are essentially lost to us forever. They're still floating around within the planet's ecosystem somewhere, but they're not recoverable to us within the foreseeable future.
  2. We can place our garbage in a compost. This is a great, non-polluting, sustainable alternative when it's available: but unfortunately, only organic garbage actually decomposes properly, whereas other garbage (particularly plastic) remains intact in the ground for potentially hundreds of years.
  3. We can even send our garbage into space. To the naïve reader, this may seem like the perfect alternative: non-polluting, not taking up space anywhere, and not our planet's problem anymore. But sending garbage into space is actually none of these things. It does pollute: the conventional rocket technology required to launch it is intensely polluting, as it involves millions of tonnes of fuel. It does take up space: even though we're sending it into space, we're still dumping it — and as far as I'm concerned, dumping is dumping (regardless of location). And contrary to "not being our planet's problem" anymore, sending garbage into space ignores the fundamental fact that the Earth is a giant ecosystem, and that it has finite resources, and that those resources (whatever form they're in, "garbage" or otherwise) should stay within our ecosystem at all costs. Flinging them away outside the planet is equivalent to chopping off your own arm, and flinging it into a shark-infested river. It's gone, it's no longer a part of you.

At the end of the day, none of these fancy and complicated alternatives is all that attractive. There's only one truly sustainable alternative to dumping, and it's the simplest and most basic one of all: reusing and recycling. Reuse, in particular, is the ideal solution for dealing with garbage: it's a potentially 100% non-polluting process; it takes up no more space than it began with; and best of all, it's the ultimate form of waste recovery. It lets us take something that we thought was utterly worthless and ready to rot in a giant heap for 1,000 years, and puts it back into full service fulfilling its original intended purpose. Similarly, recycling is almost an ideal solution as well. Recycling always inevitably involves some pollution as a side-effect of the process: but for many materials, this pollution is quite minimal. And recycling doesn't automatically result in recovery of off-the-shelf consumer goods, as does actual re-use: but it does at least recover the raw materials from which we can re-manufacture those goods.

As far as cleaner alternatives to dealing with our garbage go, re-use and recycling (in that order) are the clear winners. The only remaining question is: if continued dumping is suicide, and if re-use and recycling are so much better, then why — after several decades of having the issue in our faces — have we still only implemented it for such a pathetically small percentage of our waste? And the answer is: re-use and recycling involve sorting through the giant mess that is the modern world's garbage heap; and at present, it's simply too hard (or arguably impossible) to wade through it all. We lack the pressure, the resources, but most of all the technology to effectively carry out the sorting necessary for 100% global garbage re-use and recycling to become a reality.

Human-powered sorting

The push for us humans to take upon ourselves the responsibility of sorting out our trash, for the purposes of re-use and recycling, is something that has been growing steadily over the past 30 years or so. Every first-world country in the world — and an increasing number of developing countries — has in place laws and initiatives, from the municipal to the national level, aimed at groups from households to big businesses, and executed through measures ranging from legislation to education. As such, both re-use and recycling are now a part of everyday life for virtually all of us. And yet — despite the paper bins and the bottle bins now being filled on every street corner — those plain old rubbish bins are still twice the size, and are just as full, and can also be found on every single street corner. The dream of "0% rubbish" is far from a reality, even as we've entered the 21st century.

And the reasons for this disheartening lack of progress? First, the need to initiate more aggressive recycling is not yet urgent enough: in most parts of the world, there's still ample space left for use as landfill, and hence the situation isn't yet dire enough that we feel the pressure to act. Second, reusing and recycling is still a costly and time-consuming process, and neither big groups (such as governments) nor little groups (such as families) are generally willing to make that investment — at the moment, they still perceive the costs as outweighing the benefits. Third and finally, the bottom line is that people are lazy: an enormous amount of items that could potentially be reused or recycled, are simply dumped in the rubbish bin due to carelessness; and no matter how much effort we put into legislation and education, that basic fact of human nature will always plague us.

I retract what I just said, for the case of two special and most impressive contemporary examples. First, there are several towns in Japan where aggressive recycling has actually been implemented successfully: in the town of Kamikatsu in particular, local residents are required to sort their garbage into 44 different recycling categories; and the town's goal of 0% trash by 2020 is looking to be completely realistic. Second, the city of Taipei — in Taiwan — is rolling out tough measures aimed to reduce the city's garbage output to ¼ its current size. However, these two cases concern two quite unique places. Japan and Taiwan are both critically short of land, and thus are under much more pressure than other countries to resolve their landfill and incinerator dependence urgently. Additionally, they're both countries where (traditionally) the government is headstrong, where the people are obedient, and (in my opinion) where the people also have much less of a "culture of laziness" than do other cultures in the world. As such, I maintain that these two examples — despite being inspiring — are exceptional; and that we can't count on human-powered sorting alone, as a solution to the need for more global reuse and recycling.

Robot-powered sorting

Could robots one day help us sort our way out of this mess? If we can't place hope in ourselves, then we should at least endeavour to place some hope in technology instead. Technology never has all the answers (on the contrary, it often presents more problems than it does solutions): but in this case, it looks like some emerging cutting-edge solutions do indeed hold a lot of promise for us.

On the recycling front, there is new technology being developed that allows for the robotic recognition of different types of material compositions, based purely on visual analysis. In particular, the people over at SINTEF (a Norwegian research company) have invented a device that can "see" different types of rubbish, by recognising the unique "fingerprint" that each material exhibits when light is reflected off it. The SINTEF folks have already been selling their technology on the public market for 2 years, in the form of a big box that can have rubbish fed into it, and that will spit the rubbish back out in several different bags — one bag for each type of material that it can distinguish. Well, that's the issue of human laziness overcome on the recycling front: we don't need to (and we can't) rely on millions of consumers to be responsible sorters and disposers; now we can just throw everything into one bin, and the bin itself will be smart enough to do the sorting for us!

On the reuse front, technology is still rather experimental and in its infancy; but even here, the latest research is covering tremendous ground. The most promising thing that I've heard about, is what took place back in 1995 at the University of Chicago's Animate Agent Laboratory: scientists there developed a robot that accepted visual input, and that could identify as garbage random objects on a regular household floor, and dispose of them accordingly. What I'm saying is: the robot could recognise a piece of paper, or an empty soft-drink can, or a towel, or whatever else you might occasionally find on the floor of a household room. Other people have also conducted academic studies into this area, with similarly pleasing results. Very cool stuff.

Technology for reuse is much more important than technology for recycling, because reuse (as I explained above) should always be the first recourse for dealing with rubbish (and with recycling coming second); and because the potential benefits of technology-assisted reuse are so vast. However, technology-assisted reuse is also inherently more difficult, as it involves the robotic recognition of actual, human-centric end-user objects and products; whereas technology-assisted recycling simply involves the recognition of chemical substances. But imagine the opportunities, if robots could actually recognise the nature and purpose of everything that can be found in a modern-day rubbish bin (or landfill heap). Literally billions of items around the world could be sorted, and separated from the useless heap that sits rotting in the ground. Manufactured goods could (when discovered) be automatically sent back to the manufacturer, for repair and re-sale. Goods in reasonable condition could simply be cleaned, and could then be sent directly back to a retailer for repeated sale; or perhaps could instead be sent to a charity organisation, to provide for those in need. Specific types of items could be recognised and given to specific institutions: stationary to schools, linen to hospitals, tools and machinery to construction workers, and so on.

In my opinion, robotic garbage sorting is (let us hope) closer than we think; and when it arrives en masse, it could prove to be the ultimate solution to the issue of global sustainability and waste management. In order for our current ways of mass production and mass consumption to continue — even on a much smaller scale than what we're at now — it's essential that we immediately stop "wasting waste". We need to start reusing everyting, and recycling everything else (in the cases where even robot-assisted reuse is impossible). We need to stop thinking of the world's enormous quantity of garbage as a pure liability, and to start thinking of it as one of our greatest untapped resource reservoirs. And with the help of a little junk-heap sorting — on a scale and at a health and safety risk too great for us to carry out personally, but quite feasible for robots — that reservoir will very soon be tapped.

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