At the end of ISRI and SWANA’s co-hosted MRF Summit on Nov. 18, Peter Wright, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management, had an immediate answer when asked the one thing he’d like to see magically changed about the recycling system. “Maybe it’s something [like an app]… you point your phone at an object and it tells you how to handle it,” he said. “[Something that could] use the power of that little computer almost everybody carries around with them to decipher the complicated rules that exist for recycling.”
Andrew Smerek and Ian Philips, co-founders of Denver-based startup Bluterra, have been working to make that dream come true. Founded in September, Bluterra is building artificial intelligence software that it hopes will make recycling “mindlessly easy,” according to its website. Its first product, which the company will roll out as a pilot project with several participating haulers in January, is a truck-mounted computer vision system. Each time a participating truck tips a recycling cart along its route, the system will analyze the cart’s components and contaminants and provide that information to the customer via their account with the hauler. Customers will receive a monthly recycling score, learn what contaminants they are adding to the bin, and get tips on how to improve their recycling habits.
Haulers will benefit, too, Smerek says: Not only will contamination drop as customers learn how to recycle correctly, but the visuals provided by the cameras could replace costly contamination audits, which tend to capture a moment in time—and not always the most accurate moment. “We’ve heard from companies that schedule [an audit] and then a hurricane comes up or a pandemic comes up, and they don’t get good data” Smerek says. “It’s hard for them to make business decisions based on a single point in time.”
Reducing contamination by even a small amount can greatly increase the quality and value of recyclable material for materials recovery facilities. On the second day of the ISRI/SWANA MRF Summit, Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability for Republic Services, estimated that the company could save close to $5 million annually per 1% of contamination reduction it achieves. “If we could get them down to 10% or even 5%” reduction in contamination, Smerek says, “That’s saving them $25 million to $50 million per year.”
Companies and municipalities have seen success in reducing contamination through cart-tagging programs, in which customers’ recycling carts are opened and analyzed by a team of experts before the hauler arrives. These programs give customers the same information as Bluterra’s cameras—leaving an explanatory tag on the cart if there are issues with the contents—but they are expensive to run and difficult to scale. “They have six to eight people at a time” doing the tagging, Smerek says. He estimates that Bluterra can drop the cost of contamination feedback by up to 95% through the use of its software. The company also plans to offer a “hybrid” option of contamination feedback, through which haulers can receive a list of the highest-contaminant accounts and target those with either physical tags on their carts or a mail campaign.
Bluterra plans to offer the technology for an initial upfront cost for the equipment and installation, followed by a lower monthly fee, which will cover the analysis and continuous contamination updates to customers. He expects the software to get smarter over time, as the machine builds up its database and learns to identify a greater variety of packaging and products.
Bluterra will expand its software line with an application later in 2021, Smerek says. While still largely under development, he envisions an app that would allow customers to scan items before dropping them into the bin—ensuring they’re recycling correctly ahead of time, rather than having to learn through the contamination report system. This proactive approach has been trickier to get off the ground, Smerek says, because “it’s an approach nobody has taken before in the industry.” The app requires behavior change on the part of the customer, which has caused companies to hesitate rather than invest, he says. But through his conversations with customers, it’s a change he believes people have an appetite for. “Plenty of people want to be proactive,” he says. “They just don’t know how. But they don’t want to call a company.”
Due to the complicated structure of the residential recycling system, development of the app will also require identification and integration of all the different systems nationwide, geotagging and mapping capability, and other individualized data sourcing, making it “kind of a Herculean effort,” Smerek admits. He hopes that with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency or another interested party, the app will emerge into the alpha or beta testing stage toward the end of 2021. A grant “would vastly accelerate the timeline,” he says.
For Smerek, Bluterra is a converging of two big interests—his engineering mind, which is “always looking to improve things,” and his passion for the environment and, more specifically, recycling. He first got interested in scrap recycling in high school, while earning minimum wage as a grocery store clerk. “I realized I could recycle this junk, old cars, whatever people had in their yards, and it would actually make money,” he says.
In college at the University of Texas at Austin, he pursued computer science and engineering. He met Philips in the program, who became his business partner. During that time, he worked as a caregiver to a boy with cerebral palsy, which motivated him to focus on artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision, and other software elements that can ease technological interaction for those with disabilities. “Seeing … how difficult it was for him to interact with software was very disheartening, so we went on a three-year stint to try to figure out how to solve that problem.” While they eventually encountered difficulty bringing a product to market in that space, they held on to their technology and went in another direction, partially inspired by a friend of Smerek’s who passed away in early 2020. “She was really big into the environment,” he says. “She really got me thinking more about the circular economy and environmental stewardship.”
After more than a decade away, Smerek circled back to recycling. One day, he picked up a piece of packaging and saw instructions to contact his local recycler to see if it was recyclable locally. “I thought, how would I even do that? Do I call them? I didn’t have the tools.” Smerek became fixated on the difficulty posed by a fragmented residential recycling system. “I did some research and realized nobody’s really addressing this on the consumer side—at least in a meaningful way—with technology,” he says. “Then I started talking to some of these people in the industry. I kept hearing the same thing over and over: contamination, contamination, contamination, and education, education, education. … After a while I was like, ‘Okay, I just can’t sleep anymore unless I do this.’”