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14 Mar 2023

Machine learning helps researchers separate compostable from conventional plastic waste with ‘very high’ accuracy

By Deborah Pirchner, Frontiers science writer Image: Compostable plastics are on the rise. Despite their merits, these products, including wrappers and packaging, can contaminate conventional plastic waste in the recycling process. Now, scientists used highly sensitive imaging techniques and developed machine learning methods that can identify compostable plastics among conventional types. Disposable plastics are everywhere: Food containers, coffee cups, plastic bags. Some of these plastics, called compostable plastics, can be engineered to biodegrade under controlled conditions. However, they often look identical to conventional plastics, get recycled incorrectly and, as a result, contaminate plastic waste streams and reduce recycling efficiency. Similarly, recyclable plastics are often mistaken for compostable ones, resulting in polluted compost. Researchers at University College London (UCL) have published a paper in Frontiers in Sustainability in which they used machine learning to automatically sort different types of compostable and biodegradable plastics and differentiate them from conventional plastics. “The accuracy is very high and allows the technique to be feasibly used in industrial recycling and composting facilities in the future,” said Prof Mark Miodownik, corresponding author of the study. Up to perfect accuracy The researchers worked with different types of plastics measuring between 50mm by 50mm and 5mm by 5mm. […]


03 Nov 2022

60% of home ‘compostable’ plastic doesn’t fully break down, ending up in our soil

By Suzanna Burgelman, Frontiers science writer Image: Citizen scientist image from In a UK-wide study, researchers found that 60% of home-compostable plastics do not fully disintegrate in home compost bins, and inevitably end up in our soil. The study also found that citizens are confused about the labels of compostable and biodegradable plastics, leading to incorrect plastic waste disposal. These results highlight the need to revise and redesign this supposedly sustainable plastic waste management system. Global plastic pollution remains one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. A new OECD report shows that plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years. Globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, while 50% ends up in landfills, 22% evades waste management systems, and 19% is incinerated. In response to this pollution crisis, several countries have set targets to eliminate all single-use plastics and to make plastic packaging 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.  Compostable plastics are becoming more common as the demand for sustainable products grows. The main applications of compostable plastics include food packaging, bags; cups and plates, cutlery, and bio-waste bags. But there are some fundamental problems with these types of plastics. They are largely unregulated and […]