Still Doing Your Recycling All Wrong? This Bot Wants to Hear From You

The chatbot A.I.R. -e helps citizens to learn where to recycle the different products

Plastic goes in the yellow one, paper in the blue and glass in the green. But how can you be sure you're actually doing it right? Ecoembes, a Spanish waste management company, has created a chatbot to help solve those doubts.

Autor*in Ana Galán Herranz, 02.20.19

Plastic goes in the yellow one, paper in the blue and glass in the green. But how can you be sure you’re actually doing it right? Ecoembes, a Spanish waste management company, has created a chatbot to help solve those doubts.

We all know that recycling is fundamental in the fight against climate change. It reduces water and energy consumption, avoids generating new resources and also takes care of the environment by giving a new life to those products that, in many cases, would end up in landfills. Nowadays, thanks to technology, it is possible to recycle a multitude of products from plastic and clothing to heavy metals and even chemical waste.

Recycling seems to be a challenge in many countries, however, as the Eurostat data shows. In Europe, 45 per cent of urban waste is recycled, 5 per cent below the target set by the EU for 2020. Spain lags far behind, at only 29 per cent of its waste being recycled.

To help citizens to recycle, and also do it properly, Ecoembes has created AIR-e (Intelligent Recycling Assistant), a bot that can respond in all four of Spain’s official languages and is available on Facebook Messenger and for IOS and Android.

This chatbot was developd in TheCircularLab, a circular economy innovation center created by the company, which seeks to promote the best types of innovation in the field of packaging and recycling. The centre, which opened its doors in May 2017, works with companies, public bodies and citizens to study, develop and test out best practices methods for the lifecycle of packaging – from its conception to its reintroduction in the consumption cycle in the form of new products.

A.I.R-e works with speech, text and image recognition, meaning users can send a photograph of any waste that they’re not sure how to recycle. The assistant uses artificial intelligence to give the users instant and interactive information, about different issues related to the recycling of packaging – like which bin it belongs in and what it’s made of. It also offers advice on how to recycle other sorts of things, such as furniture and textiles. It uses machine learning techniques, combined with human assistance, to help it build up the database and fill up any knowledge gaps as the queries come in.

Taking the Trash Bot for a Test Run

We decided to test out the assistant with a few different products. First one: a pizza box, aka greasy cardboard. What did the bot say? “As long as the container doesn’t have any food in it, you can throw it into the blue container”. Second one: contact lenses? “Without a doubt the grey bin (normal waste)”. And a T-shirt? “I know that humans use old shirts as pajamas, have you thought about it? If it’s not even up to that, you can chuck it into your closest textile bin.”

Recycling is based, to a large extent, on information and education. While, we all know about the benefits of recycling, many times a lack of information is one of the main things that prevent us from recycling correctly. Hopefully, initiatives like A.I.R-e will help people in Spain to continue to doing their little bit wherever they can, and maybe one day soon other countries will follow suit.

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