Waste management is a messy business – in more ways than one – and if it’s ever going to clean up its act, innovation is urgently needed. While specific efforts to reduce waste, like using of recyclable or even biodegradable packaging materials, and the EU’s upcoming a ban on single-use plastics, may be helping to reduce the amount of waste that we are producing, our society and economy are still deeply and fundamentally linear. Raw materials are used to make a product, and after that product reaches the end of its useful life, we throw it away. Sometimes it’s even worse than that, with products thrown away before they’ve ever been used at all.
This is the case for many retailers, who throw out huge amounts of products, either because they’re expired, damaged, returned or simply unwanted by consumers, transporting them to landfill or organising for them to be incinerated. Retail giant Amazon made headlines in 2018 after it became public knowledge that they were routinely destroying masses of returns: refrigerators, washing machines and dishwashers, mobile phones, trays, mattresses and furniture. Not only unusable products, but also fully-functional and brand new products were being binned. And Amazon doesn’t seem to be the only one. As absurd as it sounds, apparently, disposal is currently the most cost-effective way to deal with unsold or returned goods. Shockingly, and most likely fuelled by the growing popularity of online shopping, an estimated five billion pounds of waste is produced just through product returns each year, with many retailers admitting that they often throw out returned products rather than re-sell or refurbish. One common excuse given is that they just don’t have the technology in place to efficiently and effectively process and deal with products that are no longer in pristine condition. It’s a large, and growing, global problem.
Texas-based Smarter Sorting wants to stop retailers from too quickly labelling these kind of unsaleable products as “waste” and help them to think more creatively. Their AI-supported sorting platform offers them information about more sustainable ways of dealing with unsaleable or returned articles: including reusing them, turning them into donations, or taking them apart and recycling their different components. And for products that really do have to be disposed of, the platform suggests the most environmentally-friendly way of going about it.
Smarter Sorting’s platform can be understand as a kind of intelligent database. It classifies items according to their product information and also their chemical and physical components and uses machine learning to make more sustainable and at the same time more cost-effective decisions. When an employee scans an item using the barcode, the platform provides optimised instructions on what to do with it: Should it be donated or returned to the seller? Can it be recycled or should it be disposed of as electronic scrap, pharmaceuticals or organic waste?
The smarter sorting system either identifies the article directly or categorises its different components and checks them against the municipal and state waste disposal laws. This makes compliance much simpler, more digital and less burdensome for businesses, and automates the decision-making process when it comes to what to do with unsaleable items.
Where does the AI platform get its data from?
Smarter Sorting is not only aimed at retail companies, but also at suppliers too. Suppliers can use the company’s system to simplify the classification of their products, because it serves as a sort of one-stop registry holding all of the data about all of their products in just one place. Suppliers can enter the safety, transport, packaging and disposal information of their different products articles into the portal and Smarter Sorting’s machine learning technology is able to collate the information in such a way that, according to the company, registers and takes into consideration all relevant regulations.
In conversation with RESET, Smarter Sorting explained that in an example implementation of its technology with one retailer, it helped divert over 70% of its waste from landfills within approximately three months of using the technology. And according to the company, their system has so far kept more than one hundred thousand kilograms of waste from landfills.
Smarter Sorting currently works with companies in the USA and Canada. They recently received a generous round of seed funding that will be used to expand the software and potentially work with larger retailers and even local authorities in the future. Although the effectiveness of the system has some limitations, as (at least right now) individual items have to be entered manually, it is an interesting application of artificial intelligence in a field where innovation is desperately needed, and a promising approach to waste reduction in the push towards a more circular, minimum-waste economy.
This article is part of the RESET Special Feature “Artificial Intelligence – Can Computing Power Save Our Planet?” Explore the rest of our articles in the series right here.