AI-driven Recycling Pilot Program Launches at UMass Campus Center
rStream, a robotics company focused on waste management and recycling formed by two UMass Amherst students and incubated at Greentown Labs, Somerville, is rolling out a pilot program with UMass Dining Services. Running through the fall semester, the program will test the AI’s ability to identify in real time what is going through the waste stream.
Co-founders Ian Goodine and Ethan Walko will present their technology along with a demonstration of the system, dubbed AuditPRO, to members of the press and the community on Oct. 17, at 5:30 p.m. in the Lincoln Campus Center.
Goodine and Walko began investigating solutions for waste in 2020 during their mechanical engineering senior design project with the goal of having artificially intelligent robots sort recycling from trash. During their master’s studies, they formally co-founded rStream, further developed the idea through the I-Corps @ UMass program, which helps students and others on campus turn their technological discoveries into real-world products and services, and sought out grant funding from the National Science Foundation to support their continued R&D.
“The big problem in recycling is people just don’t put stuff in the right bin,” Goodine says. This often leads to “capture rates” — the amount of recyclables diverted from the waste stream — of only 30%. Compounding the issue is that roughly a third of the single stream recycling collected is contaminated which degrades the quality of those recyclable commodities.
The computer vision and robotic innovations in rStream’s technology will take the “which bin does this go in?” guesswork away from consumers. “The world rStream wants to make is one where consumers put everything in a single bin, and automation does the rest,” says Goodine. Instead of 30 percent, this technology could ensure 90 to 100 percent of recyclables are being picked up by waste haulers and made into new products.”
The current pilot, the AuditPRO, which stands for pilot readiness optimization, resides at the UMass Amherst Lincoln Campus Center concourse. “It tests rStream’s artificial intelligence and will identify in real time what goes into the waste stream. These data reports will provide feedback to the sustainability team at UMass which can be used to inform waste reduction efforts,” says Walko.
“Making robotics to sort waste is the end goal,” says Goodine. “But developing a robot for this task is an exceptional R&D effort. rStream is deploying this auditing system to accelerate our research into real-world settings and prove that we’ve developed a state-of-the-art AI ‘brain’ for our robot.”
Even without the robotic component, this AI auditing system is extremely valuable, says Kathy Wicks, sustainability director of Auxiliary Enterprises, who has been working with Goodine and Walko since they first had the idea as undergraduates. “Currently, and historically, waste audits have been messy and cumbersome. They consist of emptying out a dumpster and sorting it. And UMass has done that,” she adds. Data from a waste audit will be used to drive the university’s decisions on how to handle waste and what future green initiatives are needed.
“The beauty of the AuditPRO system is that it’s happening in real-time, and it happens without the mess, the labor or the space,” says Wicks.
“This rapid return of information creates a clearer picture of the campus's waste,” says Walko. “Understanding the waste outputs of UMass, especially those products which may be harder to dispose of sustainably, will make UMass Sustainability agile as they optimize their program. A common solution may be targeted communications, but it will go as deep as advising strategic procurement to have more sustainable outputs from campus operations.”
“We talk about the circular economy, where if you recycle something, the benefit is that those materials will become feedstock for remanufacturing, instead of taking resources, using them, throwing them out and starting over by taking more,” says Goodine. “The catch is, in a circular economy, the consumer is the driver. Our performance at the waste bins heavily determines the economic viability of a circular economy, and humanity has a bad track record with that. We’re making a bet that robotics can decrease the anxiety around waste decisions and outperform other strategies.”
rStream’s growth has been made possible by a $275,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant as well as $125,000 from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s AmplifyMass program.
The startup is currently located in cleantech incubator Greentown Labs in Somerville, Mass.