A Good Garbage Idea

Main page content

Assistant Professor Eyhab Al-Masri's students developed technology that can identify when non-recyclable items have been dumped into recycling bins.

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Eyhab Al-MasriHere is a familiar scenario. You stand in front of garbage can and wonder: is this recyclable? You look at the picture posted on the front of the bin then look at the item you’re holding. Closer inspection fails to provide clarity and so, in frustration, you dump the item into the recycling and go about your day. Trouble is, the thing you tossed isn’t recyclable.

Contaminated recycling streams is a major issue in the waste management industry. An estimated 25% of material placed in recycling containers isn’t recyclable through curbside programs. Contamination can result in recyclables being thrown away. “Cities or waste management companies often spend a considerable amount of money in sorting all that garbage and recycling,” said UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Eyhab Al-Masri. “The source separation process after waste is collected is a time consuming and costly process.”

I believe this project sparked in us dreams of being part of the next generation of inventor-engineers.”
Ibrahim Diabate, ’17 B.S., ’18 Computer Science & Systems

This past spring Al-Masri tasked students in his Internet-of-Things course with developing IoT applications using IoT devices that could connect with and relay data to the internet. One group of students developed a prototype that could detect when a recyclable had been thrown into the trash and vice versa. At the end of the quarter one of the students expressed interest in participating in an upcoming Microsoft Azure ‘IoT on Serverless’ Hackathon. “I asked around and five students initially volunteered, and we ended up with four,” said Al-Masri.

Over the summer, the students — Ibrahim Diabate, Ming Hoi Lam, Richa Jain and Swetha Reddy-Nathala — worked to improve upon the core concept. “Recently, many organizations, including Microsoft, have been pushing this idea of edge computing,” said Al-Masri. “In just a few years there will be something like 25 billion to 50 billion devices connected to the internet. The infrastructure of the internet may not be capable of handling all this data being sent back and forth to the cloud.”

From my experience with this project, I think other students should have faith in themselves and not be afraid to try new things. They will benefit regardless of the result.”
Ming Hoi Lam, ’17 B.S., ’18 Computer Science & Systems

Edge computing addresses this issue by making it possible for devices themselves to process data. “My students leveraged this edge computing concept, along with existing serverless technologies, by allowing the devices to locally capture images and determine violations,” said Al-Masri. A summary of the violations was sent to the cloud. “From there it went to a dashboard where students could see what was happening in real time.”

Functional prototypes or devices entered into the competition had to use Microsoft products such as Azure IoT Hub and Azure Functions. “This was a challenge because we didn't have access to paid services which meant we were dependent on trial versions,” said Al-Masri. Still, the students made it work. They spent a month and a half fine-tuning the project. “Not only did they build the model but they also had to train it to know when, for instance, there's cardboard in the garbage can.”

This is a huge platform with some of the tech industry's top people.”
Richa Jain, M.S. student, on presenting recycle.io findings at 2018 IEEE International Conference on Big Data

The result is recycle.io. The device is a little bit bigger than a standard index card and is designed to attach to the side of a garbage can or recycle bin. “There’s a motion sensor built in that triggers the camera,” said Al-Masri. “The camera snaps a picture whenever something new is thrown away.”

Al-Masri’s students placed third in the Microsoft hackathon and were awarded $3,000. “There were about 30 participating groups and over 560 registered participants in the event,” said Al-Masri. “This is really a significant accomplishment for them.”

The guidance and support of Dr. Al-Masri and UW Tacoma gave us the opportunity to compete in the hackathon.”
Swetha Reddy Nathala, ’18, M.S., Computer Science & Systems

Three of the four students have since graduated but Al-Masri has plans to continue the project. “I’m looking for students to get involved,” he said. “There are still some things left to do including making the device smaller and making it capable of detecting in real time the level of garbage or recycling in a can.”

Al-Masri sees recycle.io as a potential tool for those in the waste management industry to save money while increasing the level of materials that are recycled. “Just knowing how much gets thrown away and how much contamination there is will bring awareness to the issue and could help bring about a solution,” he said.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / December 12, 2018
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu