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A smart approach to examining what goes into waste bins

The Recycling Pioneers want to improve waste habits at McGill and are poised to start testing their smart waste bin platform in the Trottier building

Kirk Lau, Simina Alungulesa, and Arneet Kalra

It was only a snapshot, but it wasn’t pretty.

The Recycling Pioneers, a group founded by three McGill students, donned gloves and pored through some of the recycling and garbage from the cafeteria in the McConnell Engineering Building.

They found lots of mis-sorting: recycling material in the garbage and vice versa.

The students are hoping to help improve waste habits on McGill’s downtown campus. This month, they started installing a prototype of their smart waste bin in the Lorne M. Trottier Building.

They’re using a waste sorting station donated by McGill’s Building and Grounds department with four compartments: garbage (landfill), composting, and two for recycling – paper and cardboard, and another for mixed recycling (plastic, metal and glass).

The prototype features sensors that will provide data on weight and volume in the bins.

“The goal is to educate the public about proper recycling and to keep them engaged, [with] sort of real-time messages of what’s happening in the bins,” says Kirk Lau, a PhD candidate in materials engineering.

To that end, a screen on top of the bins will display real-time data and provide information, such as reminding people what waste goes where.

“I think something that’s great about the project is that it provides a kind of visibility, which we tend to lose with something that becomes almost a reflex to just throw it out and to not think twice about it, but to know that it’s actually impactful to the environment,” says Misghana Kassa, BSc'20. 

From a behavioral perspective, “we know that that sort of real-time feedback and quantification does change people’s behavior,” says Kendra Pomerantz, BA’14, a supervisor in the Buildings and Grounds department, who has worked closely with the students on their project.

The students’ initiative began with goLEAD, a program affiliated with the Faculty of Education that offers students from all faculties an opportunity to build their leadership skills by tackling projects focused on real-world challenges. “We actually won that case competition,” says Simina Alungulesa, BEng’18, a master’s student in chemical engineering.

She, Lau and Kassa continued on with the project (Arneet Kalra joined the group more recently) and obtained $3,000 from McGill’s Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) to pursue their idea. The SPF offers seed funding for projects that contribute to building a culture of sustainability at McGill.

The students were put in touch with Pomerantz who says their project aligned well with work already underway at Buildings and Grounds. “It was kind of this really nice synergy that we were able to develop with them.”

One key element of Buildings and Grounds’ waste management improvement strategy is phasing out stand-alone garbage cans in the hallways of major academic buildings and replacing them with standardized three- or four-stream sorting stations, Pomerantz says.

Kirk Lau, Simina Alungulesa, and Arneet Kalra

Left to right: Kirk Lau, Simina Alungulesa, and Arneet Kalra.

: Owen Egan

The Recycling Pioneers turned to students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering for help with the design.

Kalra, a software engineering student, joined the group this past summer thanks to a position created by the McGill Engine’s Startup Internship Program. Not only has the project helped him hone his software creation skills, Kalra says it has also affected his recycling habits.

“I started implementing what I learned at my home, composting a lot more, recycling a lot more, making sure that there’s no cross-contamination,” says Kalra.

Is there one mistake, in particular, where people erroneously think ‘oh, this can be recycled’?

“Greasy pizza boxes,” Lau says without hesitation.

“Exactly,” Alungulesa chimes in. “So, like, cardboard stuff that has been contaminated by food.”

Pomerantz calls coffee cups “one of our biggest culprits.”

Coffee sold on campus comes in compostable cups, but paper cups from Starbucks and Tim Hortons should go in the trash at McGill, she says. People often mistakenly put non-recyclable cups into the paper recycling stream – with a bit of coffee in them, to boot. When coffee spills all over the paper, they sometimes have to toss out the entire recycling bag because it’s been contaminated, Pomerantz explains.

The data from the smart waste bin platform will give Buildings and Grounds a lot of insight into how people are interacting with its waste bins, she says.

“We’re rolling out these stations…I think it’s going to be really interesting to be able to see how are different waste streams filling up comparatively to each other, for example.

“Are the waste and recycling and compost streams filling up proportionately to how much of each of those materials we know are being generated within our waste stream at McGill, or are we seeing people are putting, for example, too much in the trash,” Pomerantz adds.

Moreover, Buildings and Grounds is in charge of custodial services. “It’s really useful insight for us to see at what speeds are the bins filling, at what hours of the day, and that can help us to optimize our operations as well.”

The smart waste bin was originally destined for the McConnell Engineering Building. With the shift to remote learning this fall, the bin is instead being set up in the Trottier Building, which will see slightly more foot traffic.

“There’s always an iteration process that comes with the first prototype to see if that works,” says Lau. “So that’s what our focus is on right now."