AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) – A pilot program using AI-driven robots will launch with UMass Dining Services.

The robotics company, rStream, was founded by two UMass Amherst engineering graduates, Ethan Walko and Ian Goodine. Their innovation will test the AI’s ability to identify in real time what is going through the waste stream, according to a news release from UMass Amherst.

“The big problem in recycling is people just don’t put stuff in the right bin. The world rStream wants to make is one where consumers put everything in a single bin, and automation does the rest,” Goodine says. The technology could ensure that 90 to 100 percent of recyclables are made into new products. It was developed at Greentown Labs in Somerville.

A grant of $275,000 was provided by the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and $125,000 from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s AmplifyMass program.

“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.

Kathy Wicks, sustainability director of Auxiliary Enterprises, who has been working with Goodine and Walko said, “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.

“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.”

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