A new Ramsey-Washington County program uses artificial intelligence to sort compost from trash

A new Ramsey-Washington County program uses artificial intelligence to sort compost from trash

The composting process in Ramsey and Washington counties has become high-tech.

Residents of four cities there can now throw compost in the trash — and let artificial intelligence sort it. somewhat.

Through the counties’ new food scrap pick-up program, special bags of compost can be dropped into trash carts, picked up by haul trucks, transported to a county waste facility and sorted using artificial intelligence and robotic arms that can pick them up.

If all of this sounds different from other composting programs, that’s because it is.

“We are probably one of the first communities to have a program of this size to do it this way,” said Sam Hall, facility manager for the Ramsey/Washington Recycling and Energy Center.

The pilot program was expanded in October to include all residents of Maplewood, North St. Paul, Cottage Grove and Newport. It is expected to eventually be available to all residents of Ramsey County and Washington.

Artificial intelligence and robotics

Conveyor belts carry trash to a small room at the Newport Recycling and Energy Center, the facility where Ramsey County and Washington residents’ waste goes. There, a machine attached to the belt scans trash as it moves at 73 feet per minute, using artificial intelligence to identify bags of food scraps based on their color and size.

These food scraps bags are no ordinary compost bags. They’re specifically designed to withstand a ride on a garbage truck and conveyor belt.

When the AI ​​machine finds one, it tells a robotic arm down the line where the bag is. In a quick, precise motion, the arm swings and grabs, separating the bag of food scraps from kitchen trash bags, expired Halloween pumpkins and other trash.

At least that’s what happens often. Sometimes the AI ​​gets things wrong, sending the robotic arm to pick up a bag that looks like a leftovers bag but isn’t.

The technology is already being used to identify aluminum cans, but using it to pull out bags of food scraps is new, said Joe Haynes, the facility’s maintenance manager.

Workers at the facility mark the equipment: Everything that has been identified as a bag of leftovers — correctly or incorrectly — is fed through the machine again so it can be seen whether it was guessed correctly or not.

Currently, food scraps are sent to a commercial composter. Eventually, it will be sent to be anaerobically digested to generate energy, Hall said.

Combined summation model

In Minneapolis and many other communities, residents can request a dedicated compost cart that is picked up separately from trash.

In Ramsey and Washington counties, residents have waited longer for curbside composting, but the benefits of the so-called “co-collection” model, where trash bags and food scraps are collected together, are many, says Annaleigh Garlitz, food scraps recycling program director. supervisor.

First, it is easy for residents and waste transporters because it does not change the transportation structure. Second, it’s available to renters and homeowners at no additional cost beyond what they already pay for the dumpster. Districts cover the cost of the bags, which range from $23 to $32 depending on size, and send them to participants.

Third, “it reduces greenhouse gas emissions because there are fewer trucks,” Garlitz said. “There is no separate truck collecting manure that needs to go down the road and then to the facility.”

With the launch of the program in four cities last month, the program has become available to 40,000 families. As of Monday, 2,283 families had registered.

Sam Ferguson, communications and outreach program coordinator, said she hopes to see more people join the program.

“The higher the participation rate of people sending in food waste, the better our technology gets,” she said. As the technology improves, it becomes easier for other local governments to adopt it.

Residents of Maplewood and North St. Paul, Cottage Grove and Newport sign up for the food scraps pickup program at foodscrapspickup.com.

The timeline for adding other cities in Ramsey County and Washington has not yet been determined, Garlitz said. These residents can still bring leftovers to drop-off locations and can sign up for updates on the website.

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