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East Lansing finds an intelligent solution to household recycling errors

To reduce the amount of contamination in some East Lansing households’ curbside recycling by nearly one-quarter, all it took were smarts – of the nonhuman kind.

Flyer from East Lansing's artificial intelligence robotic recycling program showing photos of items incorrectly placed into recycling bin.

Flyer from East Lansing's artificial intelligence robotic recycling program.


A 24-week pilot program launched in September 2022 with the city, Canada-based Prairie Robotics, The Recycling Partnership (TRP), and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) used cameras on the mid-Michigan city’s recycling collection trucks paired with computers powered by artificial intelligence (AI) to collect household-by-household data on what people placed in their curbside recycling bins or carts.

Households that received a certain type of educational postcard to coach them about recyclable materials reduced contamination by 23% and set out their carts 45% more often compared to a control group. The system sent postcards by mistake just 0.5% of the time. Preliminary results are from an Ohio State University statistical analysis of the project. A paper with the researchers’ findings is in the works.

The project is an automated version of TRP’s “Feet on the Street” systems of manually inspecting curbside bins in some communities and leaving educational stickers when nonrecyclable materials are found.

East Lansing’s pilot – the first of its kind on a citywide scale – was intended to compare the performance of traditional vs. high-tech approaches.

The new technology can identify nonrecyclable materials such as garbage, yard waste, or plastic bags. Based on findings, households setting out improper materials received automatically generated postcards in the mail with tips on what to put into their bins and what to leave out. The postcards included links to city recycling educational resources, including the Recycle Coach app.

Managers of the program said more than 5,000 postcards were mailed under the pilot program – with significant results.

Cliff Walls, East Lansing environmental sustainability and resiliency manager, said educational feedback through the project improved both the quality of the city’s recycling stream and household participation in recycling.

Plastic bags and film, bagged materials, and Styrofoam were among the most frequently identified contaminants. Acceptable materials for curbside or dropoff recycling can vary by location depending on what types of items a Materials Recovery Facility might be equipped to handle – information found on many municipalities’ websites.

Walls said the AI program freed up staff to address other needs.

As a result of the project, East Lansing was named a top three finalist for National Program of the Year by Resource Recycling, Inc., at the nation’s largest municipal recycling conference. The city now is exploring long-term options to install AI tech on recycling trucks.

Learn more on EGLE’s Recycling webpage.