Clever materials vs dumb humans
In recent years there has been a surge of new materials that offer different end of life options for food and beverage packaging. For example UK based VegWare have a huge range of compostable coffee cups and lids using variants of the plant based plastic PLA, they are great quality and have all the same features and functions of the standard, ubiquitous coffee cup.
The fact that these types of packaging look practically identical to their non-compostable counterparts creates a bit of an issue, because, like our food waste, if these compostable items end up in a landfill site rather than a properly managed compost facility they decompose anaerobically and create methane rather than carbon dioxide (Read this for an explanation of why this is probably a bad thing!).
So is the answer simply education, surely everyone wants to be better at recycling, just tell people which waste goes where and job done! Unfortunately us human are complex beings and not machines…we think we know better than any sign, symbol or colour coded bin, we generally follow logic, and in an effort to ‘be good at recycling’ we put as much as we can into the green bins “this cup is paper, it must go into the green bin… happy face, I’m saving the world”. This means that waste management companies need to spend more time, and importantly energy, separating these contaminated waste streams, as best they practically can.
I saw this behaviour first hand recently at a music festival. Grundon were the waste services provider and had done an amazing job of educating and engaging the public, they had loads of detailed information on their recycling points, character recycling bins called ‘Grundonians’, a challenge for kids to follow across the festival site they even had a maze made out of bins (which my son dragged me around multiple times!) and they had representatives on site to discuss waste; all in great humour with ‘rubbish’ jokes thrown in. I cannot think what more they could have done to engage the public. However, across this family friendly festival site, hosted on organic farm the clearly labelled green and black bins contained virtually the same waste.
What can be done? New smart technologies can help with ever more efficient systems being used to sort waste on a commercial scale at the processing plants so perhaps the answer is to cut out the erroneous, illogical human and simply put all our waste into one place, letting machines and sensors sort it for us… for me, socially, this is a negative move, it detaches us from the consequences of the decisions we make in the products we buy and the impact they have, it lets the brand owners off the hook; out of sight out of mind.
So, the brand owners. It is clear that consumers and product companies need to work together on this, to incentivise each other to do better with recycling and have more of an open conversation about it. At Cambridge Consultants we believe that purposeful and novel implementation of existing technologies can help with this dialogue. For example how about your coffee shop taking responsibility for encouraging you to dispose of your cup in the right way, going there with you and rewarding you for it? What if, in exchange, your coffee shop got useful data back about the decisions you make, where you purchase, consume and dispose. Could they then iterate and tailor their infrastructure to make it easier, faster more efficient to dispose of food and beverage packaging waste responsibly? How powerful could something like this be?
As a discussion piece we have designed and built a prototype Smart Recycling system which uses machine vision to identify specific waste packaging items and an artificial neural network to make decisions about which bin your items should be in. We have connected this system to an app which allows brands to reward you, and a ‘dashboard’ which gives powerful data back to the brand owner (food chain, coffee chain etc.) telling them where, when and how people are disposing of their waste.
We are demonstrating this platform for the first time this week at Drinktec in Munich in Hall A1 stand 213. If you are here come and see us; I would love to show you what we’ve done and discuss how we think food and beverage brands can be more involved with consumers for the whole product and packaging journey.