William Bowers, a 12th-grade student at Eastside Preparatory School, has been working on an app to ease the confusion of complicated recycling by intersecting his passion for technology and AI along with his own experiences struggling with recycling.
The idea for the app began the summer before Bowers’ junior year of high school, when he realized he had no idea what was recyclable and what was not.
“I saw a Doritos [bag] with a compostable symbol on them, and then I saw them in the garbage bin and the recycling bin and the compost bin, in one given location,” Bowers said. “And different articles, webpages and social media posts were always giving me different information about where to put different items.”
Bowers’ experience mirrors the many Americans who hesitate when throwing away trash at a compartmental compost, recycle and waste trash can.
Although 94% of Americans agree that recycling is important, only 35% of them recycle, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A joint survey reported this decline is due to many Americans being confused and overwhelmed when it comes to recycling because they don’t know what can be recycled or how to recycle it.
According to the 2020 Kirkland Sustainability Master Plan, the City of Kirkland recorded that 54% of its waste is recycled, but plans to nudge that number to 70% by 2030.
To combat the complexity of recycling and encourage Kirkland’s future goal, Bowers and his team completed and released the recycling app called RecycleScan in October.
The app allows users to take pictures of a piece of waste and, with the help of an AI algorithm, learn how it should be disregarded based on recycling guidelines from the Kirkland City Council.
“[The app] accounts for complicated items such as electronic waste, which is commonly confusing to users,” Bowers said. “And as users recycle, they can complete weekly challenges and earn badges to stay motivated.”
The app provides additional educational pages to inform users how to recycle items like plastic, metal and glass.
To develop the app, the team of eight created a nonprofit called The Plastic Project, Bowers said.
The team includes students from Eastside Preparatory School, an AI researcher from Harvard University, and a marketing volunteer developing a sister app in Kenya.
Although the app is tailored around Kirkland recycling guidelines, Bowers said their goal is to generalize the app to fit multiple geographic locations.
“I think it would be great if we could have a way to get the user’s geographic location and find recycling guidelines specific to that area,” Bowers said. “There’s technology that does that. We just have not integrated that yet.”
RecycleScan is currently released at an open beta level, allowing anyone to use the app for free and the team to gain feedback — which users can provide on the app — to continuously improve the AI model and hone in on where the app is struggling and succeeding.
Currently, RecycleScan can be used on the website or downloaded off the website as an app on your phone.