Everyone knows recycling is important. Most people have a pretty good idea of what’s recyclable and what’s not.
So why are landfills across the country filled with millions of tons of plastic, paper and glass – materials that are collected separate from trash almost everywhere in the U.S.?
Charles Yhap, co-founder and CEO of CleanRobotics, has a pretty good answer.
“A lot of people want to do the right thing, but they need to know, specifically, what the right thing is, and that thing has to be easy,” he said.
So Yhap and Tanner Cook, fellow co-founder and CTO of the Colorado-based company, invented the easy, right thing. They call it TrashBot.
In short, TrashBot is a waste receptacle powered with AI and robotics that analyzes and separates recyclable waste from landfill waste at the point of disposal instead of at a recycling facility. “It’s simpler than you think, because a trash can needs to be very simple,” Cook said.
This trash can is a roughly rectangular silver box with one opening and an LED screen mounted above. At Pittsburgh International Airport it is stationed in Baggage Claim as part of the airport’s xBridge innovation program.
When someone throws something into the opening, it drops into a chamber full of sensors. TrashBot identifies the item, determines if it is recyclable or not, and moves it to an appropriate bin inside. When the bins get full, they notify cleaning crews via an app.
Soon, the screen above TrashBot will flash messaging directly related to the item being tossed. For example, if someone throws away a water bottle that still contains some liquid, TrashBot will explain that the leftover water needs to be drained before the bottle is recyclable, which many people don’t know.
“Education is first,” Cook said. “Having the data to be able to drive very direct and actionable policies and education and information is unique to our solution and very key to our value proposition.”
That education doesn’t stop with the consumer. TrashBot collects data on everything placed in it, and CleanRobotics pulls that data from all of its units and uses it to regularly update its software, meaning every TrashBot gets iteratively smarter.
The company also shares that data with its clients, to give them more insight into their consumers’ behavior. That knowledge can help clients become more sustainable themselves, for example by adjusting sales tactics or product lines.
Realizing that they could do more for their customers than just separate paper and plastic was a significant inflection point for the company, said Yhap, who went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh.
“That actually took us a long time, to understand that was profoundly more valuable than just the automated sorting,” he said.
At PIT, the TrashBot is deployed as part of the airport’s xBridge program, launched in 2020, which has a proven record of working with both established and startup technology companies to develop tech solutions for aviation and other industries at PIT.
The CleanRobotics product is the latest in a series of technological advances in the sustainability sector for the airport, which includes a “digester” that process food-based waste into liquid fertilizer and an “aerium” that uses algae to scrub carbon dioxide from air in the terminals. Other initiatives include teleoperated vehicles and autonomous floor scrubbers, among other projects.
“The simplicity of TrashBot, like these other innovations, is one of its most appealing aspects,” said Cole Wolfson, xBridge Director. “Charles and Tanner identified a problem area and found a creative technological solution that addresses the issue with minimal cost and labor but also inspires an entire shift for our organization.”
Despite the complexity of developing and building TrashBot, which Cook said involved “layering” various engineering and tech disciplines into one product, the inspiration was almost pedestrian.
Yhap said the proliferation of standard waste and recycling receptacles grouped together at restaurants and other high-traffic businesses has become almost overwhelming, and that sparked the idea for TrashBot.
“To this day, I’ll still have the experience of being confused about where things should go,” he said. “The signage doesn’t necessarily help and might make things more confusing depending on what I’m holding.”
Now, people at Pittsburgh International Airport don’t have to worry about it—TrashBot makes the right thing easy to do.