Garbage trucks with AI to keep an eye on recycling in East Lyme and Ledyard
It used to be up to humans in the East Lyme Public Works department to take note when blatantly unacceptable items were placed in recycling bins.
But that was before garbage trucks became artificially intelligent.
Public Works Director Joe Bragaw this week said the town’s recycling truck was recently outfitted with a camera that will analyze the contents of each curbside recycling bin to make sure it’s not contaminated by items that should go in the trash instead. Postcards will be sent to violators but there are no fines.
“It’s not trying to bust people’s chops, it’s trying to improve the quality of the recycling,” he said.
Dave Aldridge, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority said the GPS- and AI-enabled camera from Canada-based Prairie Robotics is able to identify contaminants. The system then generates postcards with an image of the contaminant to be mailed to the owner of each offending bin.
Aldridge said the background of the photos is blurred for security reasons. The postcards are reviewed by SCRRRA staff members before being mailed.
“There’s no data collected at all, except for the photograph and the address to mail it to,” he said.
Ledyard, which contracts with Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems for hauling waste, also will participate in the three-month pilot program. If the program is successful, it will be deployed in all of SCRRRA’s 12 towns.
Griswold, Groton, Montville, New London, North Stonington, Norwich, Preston, Sprague, Stonington and Waterford are the other communities.
Aldridge said the camera will be focused on one contaminant at a time, with the first two weeks devoted to a couple of the biggest problems in the recycling industry — plastic bags and packaging like bubble wrap.
The first day of the program last week in East Lyme yielded 14 postcards, he said. That’s out of a customer base of about 1,000 households per day.
Aldridge said he proposed the pilot program as a way to get people thinking about what can be a confusing recycling process with ever-changing rules about what can be recycled.
“There aren’t any penalties; there aren’t any fines,” he said. “The intent here is to bring awareness to someone about what’s in the bin that creates a problem, and instructing them how to do it correctly.”
Aldridge said the contamination rate came in at 25% last time Casella performed an audit of items recycled in SCRRRA’s member towns. He characterized that as a very high amount compared to more favorable levels in the 10% range.
Aldridge said solid waste put into recycling bins essentially doubles the cost of processing the items. That’s because trash that should have gone directly from a customer’s driveway to the waste-to-energy facility in Lisbon instead has to be sorted, weighed, reloaded and transported there from Casella’s recycling plant in Willimantic.
Non-recyclable items can also gum up the works at the processing facility, according to Bragaw. He described plastic garbage bags getting caught in equipment.
Bragaw said it used to be up to the recycling truck drivers or sanitation foremen doing random inspections to notice if something was in recycling bin that shouldn’t be there.
“People wish they could recycle their old pillows or their clothes or their flat screen TV or their lawnmower,” he said. “It’s almost a comedy of things we see in recycling cans that we don’t pick up.”
He said recycling truck drivers previously had texted photos of problematic items to the public works department so staff is aware if someone calls to complain.
“So when that person called and said ‘Why didn’t you pick up my recycling?,’ I said ‘Because you put a lawnmower in it,’ ” he recounted.
Now, he said the AI camera can go further by detecting items dumped into the truck hopper that wouldn’t have been visible to a driver in the bottom of a bin.
Aldridge pointed to a theory that says about 25% of the population is committed to recycling and 10% is committed to not being told what to do.
He described the rest of the people as too busy to keep up with the rules.
“So this is a way to try to break through to that population to say ‘Hey, just letting you know, here’s something you can do a little different,’ ” he said.
More information on recycling can be found at www.scrrra.org/resident/what-goes-where.
Acceptable recycling items
These items should be put in recycling bins in SCRRRA’s 12 member towns. Note that acceptable items can vary at different recycling centers.
paper egg cartons
paper milk/juice cartons
paper and plastic cups (but lids and straws are trash)
phone books and paperbacks
Editor’s note: This report was updated to correct Aldridge’s name.
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