Australia’s top scientists are using machine learning and camera sensor technologies to automatically identify items of rubbish in rivers, as part of an ongoing project to reduce the 67 million tonnes of waste Australia produces each year.

By understanding where and when plastic waste enters rivers, the CSIRO hopes to identify critical intervention areas where plastic can be stopped from entering waterways, and potentially recycled.

Australia generates more waste on average compared to other developed economies and recycles less. China imported as much as a third of Australia’s rubbish in the past but announced a ban on rubbish imports in 2018.

The Australian government subsequently announced a plan to stop the export of waste and $132 million to modernise the country’s waste and recycling capacity. Initially set to begin in July the export ban was pushed to January 2021 due to COVID-19.

According to the export ban timetable, agreed to by all Australian governments, the exporting of any glass, plastics, tyres, and paper will end completely by July 2024.

Plastics Mission

The CSIRO, today revealed more details of its ongoing Plastics Mission, one of 12 ongoing initiatives from the government science agency that uses science and technology to reduce plastic waste. 

In partnership with Microsoft, the CSIRO is using machine learning and artificial technology to detect and classify waste in rivers. The data will be used to implement and optimise waste monitoring systems, and establish recycling standards and best practices to reduce contamination.

CSIRO senior principal research scientist Dr Denise Hardesty. Image: LinkedIn.

“Our research is helping to understand the extent of plastic pollution in Australia and globally, and how to reduce it,” said CSIRO senior principal research scientist Dr Denise Hardesty.

“Rethinking plastic packaging is just one way of reducing waste, through better design, materials and logistics. We can also transform the way we use, manufacture and recycle plastics by creating new products and more value for plastics.”

Microsoft says its artificial intelligence and image recognition can help with establishing a baseline for the accumulation of litter in the environment. The tech giant will use camera sensors at waste traps, initially in Hobart, to provide real time reporting on the amount and type of rubbish being captured.

“Gross pollutant traps capture rubbish that ends up in stormwater drains,” said City of Hobart Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds.

“But maintenance can be costly and time-consuming. By tapping into CSIRO’s modelling capabilities, we can optimise our operations to avoid the release of pollutants, while improving safety and reducing environmental harm.”

The CSIRO says it is also working with Chemistry Australia on ways to more sustainably use, e-use and recycle plastics. 

“With a pending export ban for Australian waste, the time is now to address the plastic waste problem,” said Director Strategy Energy and Research for Chemistry Australia Peter Bury.

“Leading science will help establish standards to ensure product security and inform decision-making.

“Leveraging the capability of industry for plastic products at their end of life will also generate new types of products and design, and help build new industries and jobs across a range of sectors.”

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