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Will Green AI Tech Help or Harm the Future of Waste Management?

by April Miller Americas Asia Nov 8th 20214 mins
Will Green AI Tech Help or Harm the Future of Waste Management?

Currently, less than 30% of America’s waste reaches recycling facilities. Researchers have considered implementing AI as a waste management tool to combat this issue — but these green AI tech trends could do more harm than good if we’re not careful.

As eco-consciousness increases in America, individuals ramp up their pollution reduction efforts. Residents are taking the initiative by cleaning and sorting their trash and recycling. Once they place their waste in assigned bins outside their homes, they trust local management centres will take care of the rest.

The rise of consumerist culture has, however, generated waste challenges in the US. With more disposable and recyclable products circulating the country, there is a higher demand for efficient waste management systems. Professionals examined the benefits of using artificial intelligence (AI) within systems, helping reduce atmospheric and surface-level pollution.

The Demand for AI Tech in Waste Management

In January 2018, China placed a ban on accepting recyclables from foreign nations. The US was a leading outsourcer of recycling, thereby creating environmental challenges. They would ship out their contaminated materials to China, and in turn overwhelm China’s processing facilities.

Since the country established the recycling ban, the rate of plastics ending up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean has increased. Today, about three-fourths of America’s waste is recyclable, but barely 30% of it reaches the recycling facility. When plastics and other recyclable materials reach landfills, they may produce adverse environmental effects.

As plastic degrades, it becomes small beads called microplastics. Over time, these beads travel to and pollute regions beyond landfills through water runoff. Microplastics then invade the soil, disrupting insects’ and other animals’ abilities to nourish the earth.

Soil relies on microarthropods and nematodes to maintain necessary carbon levels and cycle nutrients through the soil. Researchers in China noticed a decrease in soil-residing organisms in microplastic polluted areas which led to the increase in nutrient depletion and erosion. Without an adequate soil composition, some regions will lose the ability to yield crops effectively.

Coastal landfills may increase the number of marine microplastics, negatively affecting aquatic ecosystems. When they pollute the ocean, marine species may ingest them and it could cause hindrance to their neurological functionality levels. Microplastics also cause adverse effects on aquatic species’ metabolisms.

Environmental engineers and researchers plan on using AI tech to increase the efficiency of recycling systems, reducing plastic pollution. It may also limit the demand for new material manufacturing, reducing processing emissions and the enhanced greenhouse effect. There are various ways waste management facilities can utilise AI to improve their processing practices.

Benefits of Using Robotics

Seoul in South Korea is using AI tech to sort recyclables in a “Superbin” reverse vending machine. The technology recognises the material and recyclability of a bottle or a can by using a machine learning algorithm. Next, the robot compresses and stores the materials based on its reading.

South Korea buries or incinerates nearly 80% of its plastics and other recyclable materials, creating adverse environmental impacts. Professionals designed these AI machines to minimise atmospheric and surface-level waste, improving ecological and human health conditions.

A team of researchers in China also explored the potential benefits of AI in the waste management sector. They developed GarbageNet, a sorting technology for landfills. In dumps, compostable items degrade and release methane emissions, increasing the rate of climate change.

The new AI programme can filter through and identify items in a landfill, removing compostable and recyclable goods to reduce pollution. It uses a three-pronged approach, and its recognition abilities are nearly 96.96% accurate. The device uses image identification technology and a memorisation feature, tracking and storing mysterious items into new categories.

Using AI in landfills and community waste processing machines can effectively minimise microplastic pollution and help the nations of the world process all their recyclables without engaging in outsourcing. Though the technology has many benefits, it also has some disadvantages.

You might also like: Can AI Help Achieve Environmental Sustainability?

Disadvantages of Using Robotics

Some AI devices are energy-intensive, especially in the training process. Researchers discovered training one robot could produce up to 284 tons of greenhouse gases, increasing atmospheric degradation. Their emission rates are five times higher than a conventional car’s emissions throughout its lifetime.

When the greenhouse gases reach the atmosphere, they alter their composition. Without consistent atmospheric elements, Earth loses its ability to maintain life-sufficient surface temperatures. Naturally, the planet attracts sunlight, produces heat, warms its surface, gathers excess energy, and emits it to space.

As emissions invade the atmosphere, they increase the heat production rate. They additionally keep and reprocess excess energy on Earth instead of sending it to space. Over time, the process increases the global temperature. When Earth’s temperature rises, it creates a ripple effect of environmental degradation.

Even AI devices can create electronic waste (e-waste) at the end of their life cycles, further reducing their sustainability rates. Recycling facilities work to reduce pollution and adverse ecological impacts instead of making them, but the system isn’t perfect.

Electronics have inevitable expiration dates, increasing their likelihood of consuming landfill space. Some devices contain mercury, lead, cadmium, and other toxins, which leak into the environment over time. Engineers are evaluating the challenges in AI technology and designing advances to reduce negative impacts.

Sustainable AI Tech

Professionals developed the field of sustainable AI to develop environmentally supportive technology and reduce climate change effects. The industry assesses how one may use technology to enhance sustainability and looks at how sustainable AI devices are. Individuals evaluate the energy use, emissions, and waste associated with technology to determine its eco-friendliness.

The field is increasing general awareness around the environmental effects of AI. It also brings professionals together, helping them source sustainable solutions for technology-caused pollution.

Is AI Worth It?

AI’s place in the waste management sector is relatively new. While the technology does represent some emerging challenges, developers are exploring advances to reduce its limitations over time. The current AI devices effectively sort recyclables and minimise pollution, enhancing the industry and helping safeguard the planet.


About the Author

April Miller

April Miller is a senior writer at ReHack Magazine with a passion for topics surrounding green technology. She aims to shine a light on the environmental issues surrounding the technology sector and educate consumers on how to make the wisest environmental choices with the technology they use.

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