University of Georgia startup company engineers solutions to recycling confusion

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Credit: University of Georgia

Credit: University of Georgia

With curbside pickup and conveniently located recycling centers, for many Georgians delivering their recyclables isn’t the challenge — it’s knowing what items can even be recycled that causes confusion.

Recycling is hyper-local, and municipalities across the state have different guidelines and capacities for what can be recycled. For households, though, there can still be a lot of puzzling over how items are sorted and if they are taken by local recycling services that can prevent items from reaching the next step in the reuse cycle.

At the University of Georgia, environmental engineer Katherine Shayne is the co-founder and president of Can I Recycle This, a startup company which is working on a solution to help people, governments and businesses figure out what products or packaging are locally recyclable and how to get them to where they need to go.

Shayne began addressing the issue in 2015 while working on a research paper about plastic pollution with Jenna Jambeck, a UGA professor internationally recognized for her research on plastic pollution and marine waste.

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Credit: Mark Babcock

Credit: Mark Babcock

“We started to get these questions from all over the country about recycling: Can I recycle this plastic? What do I do with this bottle? How do I drop this off? Or where do I drop off this material?” Shayne said. “We were getting questions from Seattle or New York and Dallas and Denver, all over the country, and so we decided to look into it. Why is ‘Can I recycle this?’ such a hard question to answer?”

AI and recycling

Part of the confusion stems from the complexity of recycling. There are a lot of ways municipalities recycle, and it changes depending on where you are. Shayne noted that Georgia, and Athens in particular, is a great place to be doing this work since not only does Athens-Clarke County have a robust recycling program, but there are a lot of companies in the state making products or packaging out of recycled materials, like Pratt Industries in Conyers which takes much of Athens-Clarke County’s recyclables.

In the beginning, Can I Recycle This was a large database with information on where types of materials could be recycled, and then a service for cities where she and her team trained an artificial intelligence system to identify products or packaging based on pictures, and the AI was embedded on Facebook and Twitter for easy use to find out how to recycle the items.

The most recent iteration of Can I Recycle This offers services for businesses and companies that want to make sure their products and packaging end up in the right place, and Shayne said they’ve found this to be valuable for companies to get their products “recovered,” meaning recycled and processed for reuse.

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Credit: University of Georgia

Credit: University of Georgia

“Now we offer a variety of products that range from just access to that information to procurement plugins for multi-unit companies, so things like airlines and hospitality groups and hotels that have locations all over the country and are wanting to make sure they have recyclable or materials that can be recovered in their hotels, marketplace or their rooms,” Shayne said.

'Secret sauce'

The real magic, for Shayne, is how Can I Recycle This amasses all the information about what can be recycled where from disparate places.

“That’s kind of our secret sauce,” Shayne said. She and her team use surveys to collect information, as well as algorithms to automate the process paired with people who go back and verify information, for example, if the algorithm notes a city added a new recyclable to its list a person would make sure to call and verify.

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Credit: University of Georgia

Credit: University of Georgia

For Can I Recycle This users, Shayne said her team conducts an onboarding survey and introduce a variety of software tools that can help relay recycling information to their customers. Beyond offering access to the information on recycling, Can I Recycle This can also offer solutions like QR codes so people can scan an item they are holding and receive instructions on how to recycle it. They also offer plug-ins for e-commerce websites to place with recycling information, and Shayne said her team has an app in beta form for Can I Recycle This.

In the future, Shayne said she’s excited about compost, refill and reuse programs on the horizon that Can I Recycle This will be able to map and add to their service. And working in higher education, she said she’s enthusiastic about the educational aspect of the project and demonstrating that the recycling system can change, that organizations can support refill and reuse systems as part of the journey toward a sustainable economy.

Marisa is an environmental journalist covering climate change and the environment on the coast. She can be reached at mmecke@gannett.com or by phone at (912) 328-4411. 

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: University of Georgia startup company engineers solutions to recycling confusion