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High-tech tools promise residential recycling improvements

We’ve all experienced the uncertainty of looking into our recycling bins and wondering whether everything belongs. Ever wish someone had your back and could let you know how you’re doing?

An overhead view shows the top of a recycling collection truck, where a camera will monitor the emptying of household bins and machine-learning technology will provide feedback on the materials deposited. Photo courtesy of Prairie Robotics.

Overhead view of recycling collection truck, where a camera is monitoring the contents of recycling bins. Machine-learning technology is providing feedback on the materials deposited. Courtesy of Prairie Robotics. 


The future is here: As the country marks the annual America Recycles Day, Wednesday, Nov. 15, new technology is poised to help 15,000 Michigan households gain confidence and accuracy in sorting their recyclables.

Working with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE); national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership (TRP); and Saskatchewan-based Canadian clean tech startup Prairie Robotics, Bay City has announced a six-month pilot project starting this month to use high-tech cameras, global positioning, and computer-equipped city recycling trucks to check the contents of curbside recycling bins using artificial intelligence (AI) and tailor constructive feedback to individual households as needed.

The project builds on the citywide distribution a year ago of 15,000 new, 96-gallon carts to households with support from EGLE, the American Beverage and Michigan Soft Drink Association, and TRP. That effort more than doubled the city’s annual recycling collection capacity to an estimated 350 pounds a  year per household.

“With the new carts, we have residents recycling now that have not participated in the past,” said Bay City Environmental Services Manager James Blake.

The educational pilot project is a logical next step.

“Public education is critical, because when wrong items are inadvertently placed in the recycling cart, they can injure workers at the recycling facility, lower the quality of good recyclables, and damage sorting equipment,” Blake said.

Quality materials, free from contamination, also are essential to Michigan’s growing circular economy and the development of markets for recycled materials.

Projections show that residential recycling will generate an all-time high recycling rate in Bay City, with an estimated increase of 1,425 recycling tons per year. Through $59,144 in grant funding from EGLE and with technical support from TRP, Bay City will implement a comprehensive education and outreach strategy.

“The Recycling Partnership is eager to continue working with EGLE and Michigan communities like Bay City to improve residential recycling across the state,” said Cassandra Ford, Community Program Manager at The Recycling Partnership. “On the Bay City project in particular, we expect to validate the effectiveness of combining camera technology with educational outreach to improve recycling that we have seen on similar technology projects in Michigan.”

The Bay City pilot project is a modified version of TRP’s “Feet on the Street” cart tagging recycling program — a communitywide initiative to improve the quality of curbside recycling by providing residents education and feedback through in-person inspection and tagging of recycling carts if items not accepted for curbside recycling are found.

The new project uses city recycling collection trucks outfitted by Prairie Robotics with camera technology. Using machine-learning techniques, the AI scans the material as it is mechanically dumped from each recycling cart into the truck and recognizes unacceptable items such as plastic bags, polystyrene foam, yard waste, and trash. Such items are flagged in near real-time, allowing for a personalized postcard or digital notification to be sent to a resident with information about how they can recycle better.

The AI is highly accurate – typically, less than half of 1% of households that receive a notification report an error. Project partners expect that any potential errors will decrease over time as the system learns and improves from additional data.

Bay City becomes the second Michigan municipality to adopt Prairie Robotics’ technology. East Lansing debuted the program last year, and initial results show contamination was reduced by nearly 25%.

“We are excited to work with the City of Bay City to test this technology and partner with The Recycling Partnership and Prairie Robotics,” said Emily Freeman, an EGLE Materials Management Division Recycling Specialist.  “Recycling properly saves taxpayers’ money by reducing costly damage to equipment, as well as the expense of sending contaminated, otherwise recyclable material to the landfill,” Freeman said. “We know Michiganders want to recycle the right way. Through this campaign with Bay City, we are providing them feedback to do just that.”

Bay City residents can learn more about what is and is not acceptable in curbside recycling at Bay City Recycles

About America Recycles Day

Also known as National Recycling Day and observed every Nov. 15 since 1994, America Recycles Day is the signature recycling advocacy program of the community improvement nonprofit Keep America Beautiful.

About recycling in Michigan

This year, more than $924,000 in EGLE grant funding will be allocated to nine recycling program grantees, representing more than 493,000 households across the Great Lakes State as part of EGLE’s national award-winning “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign, aimed at increasing the state’s recycling rate to 30% by 2025.

The funding is part of EGLE’s strategy to support recycling infrastructure, improve the quality of recyclable materials, and promote market development using the Renew Michigan Fund, which the state Legislature created in 2019 in a bipartisan move to bolster the state’s recycling efforts. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature are committed to raising Michigan’s recycling rate to 45% by 2029, exceeding the national recycling rate of 32%.

Recycling in the Great Lakes State is now at an all-time high. The total amount of residential recycled materials being reported for fiscal year (FY) 2022 was 620,494 tons – over 66,000 tons more than the record set the year before. During FY 2022, Michiganders recycled over 339,000 tons of paper and paper products, more than 154,000 tons of metals, more than 71,000 tons of glass, and over 45,000 tons of plastics and plastic products.

More Michiganders than ever have access to recycling services. Since 2021, EGLE in collaboration with TRP has rolled out 48,468 new curbside recycling carts to communities around the state.

The expanded access is helping Michigan to steadily increase its recycling rate from what was historically the lowest in the Great Lakes region. The rate has risen from 14.25% prior to 2019, to 19.3% last year and now exceeds 21%, based on EGLE’s new 2023 analysis.

Recycling, reuse, and remanufacturing industries in Michigan create 72,500 jobs and contribute more than $17 billion to the state’s total economic output, EGLE data show.

EGLE’s 2023 data analysis reflects the state’s improved recycling performance is helping Michigan advance toward the goals of the MI Healthy Climate Plan, commissioned by Gov. Whitmer as a broad-based roadmap to a sustainable, prosperous, equitable, carbon-neutral Michigan economy by 2050.