Innovation and sustainability: Tackling aspirational recycling
- Posted on March 28, 2022
- Estimated reading time 3 minutes
Early January marked great news – my teammates and I received word that our team, Carbon FoodPrint, had won the Avanade UKI Software Engineering Hackathon. The October hackathon tasked teams with developing an innovative, software-based solution to modern-day issues. Our team, comprised of Saskia Brink, Andy Gascoigne, Gosia Borzęcka and me, developed a prototype of an AI-based app to innovate in the sustainability space by attempting to tackle an increasingly impactful environmental problem known as “aspirational recycling”.
Aspirational recycling is a result of the well-known dilemma that many of the public face when disposing of household waste: not knowing whether the item-in-hand should go to general waste or recycling. Frustratingly, recycling information on packaging in the UK with its confusing symbology is hard to understand and often misleading. Many misinterpret these icons or are simply left not knowing, but face the moral predicament of wanting to do their part for the planet. Here, we find ourselves committing aspirational recycling – discarding the packaging to the recycling bin with the hope that it can be recycled even if, in reality, it cannot.
The logic here is that if the packaging cannot be recycled, a sorting mechanism at a recycling plant will remove the item from the pile and inevitably it will find its correct destination. Sadly, while this may be true in some circumstances, it generally has a larger impact than we think due to contamination. Often, entire bins of recycling are discarded due to contamination from a non-recyclable item, sometimes even scaling to entire truck loads. This incurs both a monetary and carbon cost by having to divert contaminated material to landfill sites – over 525,000 tonnes of waste were rejected at the point of sorting in England and Wales in 2019/20, at a cost of £48 million.
Our hackathon team set out to solve this problem by using cutting-edge tech routinely deployed for clients at Avanade to bring clarity and brevity to the confusing recycling information the British public are faced with, in the hope that this will ease the aspirational recycling problem that contaminates our recyclable waste.
Bringing knowledge from business consulting, data science and software engineering, we developed the Carbon FoodPrint app. Carbon FoodPrint uses Microsoft Power Apps & Power Automate to empower users to understand exactly how their household waste can be recycled based on packaging information and their local recycling protocols. The backend uses a custom-trained computer vision model to recognise and classify the symbols on the packaging and surface information about how to recycle it to the user. The model is trained on hundreds of photographs (snapped by Saskia and Gosia) to recognise a new symbol when presented with one.
Once the model has been trained, it is able to receive new images on which to make predictions - this is done via an API. Requests to the API and storing of results (i.e. which recycling icons the model has predicted) are handled by Power Automate, allowing the app to seamlessly link to the AI model. An additional feature is Power Automate’s handling of requests to the Recycle Now and Bing Maps APIs, which use the user’s GPS position to retrieve the recycling protocols of their local authority. (Recycle Now is the national recycling campaign for England, supported and funded by the UK Government)
The app also incorporates Power BI reports to provide the user with their own analytics and a measure of their historic recycling habits, such as what kind of recyclable and non-recyclable items the user is discarding. This brings a sense of improvement to our users as they begin to increasingly understand how their waste can be recycled.
In conclusion, the hackathon was a really exciting and stimulating project for all of us to take on outside of work. We learnt a lot about the app development lifecycle and the information that is out there surrounding recycling. Avanade knows that sustainability is core to doing business, so we’re proud to now be developing the app further into a mature product within Avanade and looking forward to what the future has in store for us.
If you’d like to learn more about the app, feel free to reach out to any of the team!