World Robotics Olympiad throws up real solutions for global waste management
Every year, we produce 2.12 billion tonnes of waste, while some of it is processed, recycled or upcycled, i.e, made into different products, a large portion of it goes undetected and lands up around our houses, in the ocean and, yes, even in space. And this is what has led to a whole industry being developed around waste management. However, there are a lot of glaring gaps in waste management even now, especially in the developing world.
Technology, as it is, has played an important role in providing waste management solutions, and there are inventions being made everyday to get rid of waste, but there is room for development and process innovations. Not many would believe, but this innovation is coming from the new generation, and the recent World Robotics Olympiad (WRO) in Greater Noida near Delhi was a testament to that. With a theme of automating the process of scrapping waste, 460 teams from 51 countries, including India, showcased their solutions using Lego systems. Given most were in a workable model format, some might actually be cost-effective when put in a real-life situation—the government can certainly take inspiration from these fro its Swachh Bharat Mission.
A good step to start would be water. Although the harmful effects of plastics in water are not visible, it still impacts ecology and endangers marine life. In fact, more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tonnes are afloat at sea. Awareness has worked to some extent in curbing this menace, but there is only so much that it can do. On the other hand, technology does provide some solutions, but leaves the government in a fix as to the process that can be used. Plecostomus, a team from Innovation Hub, Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai, that participated in the WRO has an answer. It has developed a solar-powered autonomous vehicle with collecting nets which can capture algae and infuse more oxygen into the water. It operates without any guidance. While this would address the collection problem, students from the Regional Science Centre, Guwahati, created an underground system for recycling and disposal of water waste. So, all that the autonomous device would have to do is collect the waste; an underground tunnel with conveyor belts would then transfer, segregate and recycle the non-biodegradable waste into bioplastics. Not that bioplastics are safe and the mechanism would require another disposal facility, but it can certainly address a fair bit of the problem, if not provide all the solutions.
In case of biomedical waste, even that was not a problem as an Indian and a UAE-based team came up with a complete solution to tackle hazardous waste. While the UAE-based Indian-origin students from The Millenium School-Dubai created a bot which would roam around a hospital collecting and segregating waste from bins—all this is done autonomously—the Indian team “Swachha Techno Kats” from Innovation Hub, Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai, created a whole model involving sorting, segregation and recycling of waste. In this model, once the waste is loaded, scanners would classify it according to the colour of the bag. This would then be loaded in a truck, that will transport it to the conveyor belt. The conveyor belt would again have sensors to segregate the waste according to recycling process, where some would be picked up for reprocessing, while others sent to the incinerator.
Given the construction boom in India and the amount of waste that comes with it, we can also look at a solution from a Syrian team, which developed a whole ecosystem for processing and recycling of construction material to be used again for new construction. Although the model is better suited to their country, it can also find its application here. In this model, two drones, one with a magnet to pick up metal products and another with a hydro-arm and a drill, would scavenge sites for recycled products. These then transport them to a crushing facility, where a 3D printer makes new material according to the architects’ need. This kind of recycling can save 1,360 gallons of water and 900 kg of carbon dioxide.
The real innovation was in the field of daily use, as this is where technology has to balance both the human element and innovation. While there were many innovations for this, with almost 10 different types of dustbins, one of the most innovative solution came from a Taiwanese team, which created an Internet-of-Things compactor. So, all one has to do is enter their account information and password and then dispose-off waste to collect points, which can be used as currency. As we get lazy disposing off waste, this provided a much-needed incentive to do so and, most important, it is fun. A similar technique was followed by a Chinese team for disposal of batteries. The used battery recycling robot would not only take up old AA or AAA cells that go in remote controls, and tell you if it has enough juice, but also process it to give you extra credits to buy a new one or a toffee to compensate you for properly disposing off the old.
Urban planning over the last decade has gone into deciding, which skyscraper goes where. As urban populations have surged, so has the burden on existing systems, crumbling for the want of an upgrade. Amidst these upgrades towards more high rises, what cities are forgetting is the need for better waste disposal systems. Unfortunately, waste disposal solutions have not found the same mention as housing in our urban planning. Hopefully, with the next generation providing some innovative solutions, this may not be the case in the coming years. The real question remains, can we clean the mess we have created in time to save the earth?