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Artificial Intelligence

University of Kentucky Employs AI to Bump Up Recycling Program

UK recycling

AI-enabled waste sorting at the University of Kentucky

In a commitment to increase its campus waste recycling efforts, the University of Kentucky's Recycling department has installed Oscar Sort, an incentivized AI-powered sorting system to help people direct trash into the right bins and lessen the impact on landfills.

Oscar Sort AI (named after Jim Henson's muppet Oscar the Grouch, who lives in a trashcan and who loves trash) was invented by two former Simon Fraser University students who won the 2017 Most Outstanding Venture award at NextAI. The Intuitive AI company was established following that.

Intuitive AI co-founder Hassan Murad gave a TED talk in 2021 in which he said people often don't understand what should be recycled and how. The Oscar Sort AI solves that, he said, and all it takes is "three seconds to change the world."

The Oscar Sort AI screen is installed above recycling and trash bins. A user shows an item to the AI's camera, which identifies it as recyclable or waste, and instructs which bin it should go into. A plastic cup with a straw, for example, is sorted with the cup going to the correct recycle bin and the straw to the landfill bin.

To provide an incentive for users to recycle rather than discard items, Oscar Sort sees which bin the item is put into and can give a scannable QR code for a rewards perk for the correct disposal. UK is planning to implement such perks, it said, based on data it collects about the success of the program. UK said it will update Oscar Sort on recyclable items, so the AI continues to learn.

"Oscar knows hundreds of classes of waste items and each class has 15-20 subclasses," Murad said. "Like a new employee, they have a good foundation but need to learn the ins and outs of their new environment. The best way to learn is by working and for Oscar that means waste! The more waste Oscar sees across the University of Kentucky, the faster and better accuracy will become over time."

In his TED talk Murad said Oscar Sort is the first incentivized recycling program, growing from 30% to 91% effectiveness since it was first used. He said that translates to eliminating 20 cars' worth of emissions in just one year. Intuitive AI's plan over the next five years is to create 200,000 Oscars, which will eliminate 4 million cars' worth of emissions every year, Murad said.

Oscar Sort has been installed at three locations on the UK campus: the Gatton Student Center, at the bottom of the social stairs, and at The 90, close to the entrance to Fresh Food Company, the university said.

"Oscar is more than a sorting assistant: It's a fun, interactive resource for students, faculty, and staff to receive instant feedback about UK's mixed recycling stream," said UK Recycling/Waste Reduction Specialist Senior Ryan Lark. "Education will be a vital part in helping UK reach its goal of becoming a zero-waste campus by 2030, and we're excited to add Oscar to our roster of educational resources."

The land-grant University of Kentucky has 200 academic programs, a $501 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center on one campus in Lexington. Its commitment is to prepare "the next generation of leaders … through education, research and creative work, service and health care." To learn more, visit the university's home page.

To learn more about the Oscar Sort AI, visit Intuitive AI's page.

About the Author

Kate Lucariello is a former newspaper editor, EAST Lab high school teacher and college English teacher.

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