AI-enhanced waste bins promote recycling at Vancouver airport

IMAGE: "Oscar" employs AI and computer vision to assist people at Vancouver International Airport in properly disposing (and recycling) their waste. (Courtesy Vancouver Airport Authority)

“Oscar” employs AI and computer vision to assist people at Vancouver International Airport in properly disposing of (and recycling) their waste. (Courtesy Vancouver Airport Authority)

They call him “Oscar” and, with a little help from artificial intelligence, he’s prompting travellers to sort and recycle their trash at Vancouver International Airport (YVR). Early indications are that he is doing a good job.

Prior to Oscar’s arrival, passengers averaged one or two seconds at the garbage can, said Vancouver Airport Authority senior environmental specialist Shaye Folk-Blagbrough.

“We’re now seeing that people are spending around 20 seconds per interaction at the waste stream, so that means people are actually learning about where their waste belongs, and that’s kind of the point,” she said.

The pilot program recently introduced the first-of-their-kind smart waste bins on the departures level of the airport, or Level 3.

Robotics, machine learning, computer vision

Oscar combines robotics, machine learning and computer vision to detect and direct people to deposit waste items into the correct bins at the receptacles.

Here’s how it works: Passengers approach a 32-inch display screen and an artificial intelligence-powered camera automatically identifies items which can be recycled from trash. The bilingual (English and French) system then instructs users as to whether items belong in the containers, compost, paper or landfill streams.

“The camera actually picks up the material, what you have in your hand,” said Folk-Blagbrough. “So if you were holding a coffee cup, the system will pick up that you’re holding a coffee cup and it will tell you which stream it belongs to.”

Technology allows Oscar to differentiate between items and prioritize which ones to instruct users about first.

And Oscar doesn’t exactly get grouchy or boss people around — rather, he “nudges” passengers to use the correct waste categories.

“As you can imagine, operating an airport, it’s got some challenges ’cause we see people from all over the world and everybody recycles differently, or may not recycle at all,” said Folk-Blagbrough.

Three bins in recycling pilot program

YVR is the first airport to leverage this technology, with three smart bins currently in the terminal. It’s a collaboration with Intuitive AI, a Vancouver-based technology company which envisions using AI to empower a zero-waste world.

“We couldn’t think of a more innovative place than YVR,” said Intuitive AI CEO Hassan Murad.

He said he prefers using real-time predictions to educate users, rather than doing all the work for them: “Initially, we were building a product that sorts it for people.”

After realizing that would be too costly, Murad and co-founder Vivek Vyas began focusing on the idea of educating — and re-educating— the public: “Once you start nudging them, you can tell them the impact they’re making,” Murad said.

The partnership is a few years in the making. Murad and Vyas approached YVR to find out how airport authority staff deals with waste and began working on a product.

So far, so good.

“It’s much more engaging than current systems,” said Murad.

“One of the objectives of the pilot project is to increase engagement with patrons and passengers “and that certainly has come to fruition,” said Folk-Blagbrough.

The cost of the pilot project is not being disclosed.

YVR developing updated targets

In YVR’s current Environmental Management Plan (EMP), from 2015 through to 2019, there’s a goal of 50 per cent waste diversion from landfill.

“So this particular piece of equipment really just helps us recycle better by teaching people how to engage with their waste properly so that YVR can help achieve these goals,” Folk-Blagbrough said.

YVR recycled or composted 2.4 of its 4.8 million kgs of domestic and international terminal building waste last year. That represented a 51-per-cent diversion rate — one per cent above the 2020 target – for the third year in a row.

That’s “pretty significant when we see around 26 million passengers a year,” said Folk-Blagbrough.

Now, a new EMP is being developed for the next five years.

“Moving forward, there’s a big emphasis these days on reduction and so we’re going to start looking at how do we reduce our waste in the first place,” said Folk-Blagbrough. “Instead of generating it and the expectation to recycle, how can we reduce?

“That is the next big challenge for us.”

WHERE’S OSCAR?

* Here are the locations of the three smart bins — they’re all pre-security: opposite to the A/B Pier Security; across from the International Terminal Building Food Court; and at the base of the SkyTrain escalators

QUICK FACTS

* YVR’s waste management efforts focus largely on the airport’s main terminals;

* Initiatives include working collaboratively with partners to reduce the impact — from offering passengers multi-stream recycling stations throughout the terminal, to implementing alternative solutions with food and beverage tenants to divert waste from landfill;

* e-waste, or electronic waste, is managed by YVR and sent to a facility in the region.

– Source: Vancouver Airport Authority


Kelly is a freelance multimedia journalist in the Toronto area. Her daily news background includes TV, newspaper and digital (in that order). Kelly has also spent time in the classroom…

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Kelly is a freelance multimedia journalist in the Toronto area. Her daily news background includes TV, newspaper and digital (in that order). Kelly has also spent time in the classroom…

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