Can people be taught to better manage their waste? Residents in one Toronto apartment building are about to find out

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Sidewalk Labs is using its technology in a new pilot project aimed at testing whether people can be taught to develop better waste disposal and recycling habits.

The Clean Recycling Pilot will employ computerized sensors to gather data on how residents in an apartment building in downtown Toronto respond to information about their waste sorting, Sidewalk Labs says.

The pilot, which kicks off this weekend and runs for three months, is intended to help residents in a 250-unit building better understand the “complicated dos and don’ts” of sorting their recyclables.

Sidewalk Labs is the Google sister firm that is proposing to build a technology-driven residential district on Toronto’s waterfront on a 12-acre parcel of land known as Quayside.

Waterfront Toronto will have final say at the end of March as to whether the Quayside project goes forward.

In the meantime, the pilot project is a partnership between Sidewalk Labs; technology-focused recycling company Canada Fibers; a building developer in Toronto; and AMP Robotics, a Colorado operation Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners invested in last year.

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners is an independent company formed in a partnership between Sidewalk Labs and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

Studies have shown that residents in apartment buildings have low waste-diversion rates — recycling and composting less than 30 per cent of their waste.

Much of the “contamination” of waste streams is believed to be a result of residents in condos and apartments not always knowing what goes in their recycling and garbage chutes, experts say.

During the pilot, a hauler will collect the building’s recycled materials every two weeks and bring it to Canada Fibers’ recovery centre.

The waste collected will be placed on a conveyor belt. An AMP Robotics computer vision system — sensors — installed on the conveyor belt by Sidewalk Labs will identify materials on the belt such as coffee cups or paper. In addition, an employee will also manually sort, itemize and record the different types of waste and their weights.

The information gathered will be based on “aggregate data” about residents in the building as a whole, not individual or personalized information. Based on the data, residents will get biweekly feedback and tips on how to make better recycling choices.

In an interview Monday, Emily Kildow, an associate director with Sidewalk Labs’ sustainability team, said the sensor technology “means you can provide more information” to residents in the building on an ongoing basis about their recycling habits.

“We’re taking the information that the computer vision system can spit out and say, ‘Here is what you’re doing right and wrong,’ ” Kildow says.

Keerthana Rang, a spokesperson for Sidewalk Labs, says it’s too early to say if the technology will be used at Quayside, if that project gets approved, but added the results of the pilot “will inform our work at Quayside and beyond.”

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The apartment building involved in the pilot is not being identified for privacy reasons. Sidewalk Labs says the project falls in line with protocols the City of Toronto uses for its waste diversion studies to ensure residents can’t be identified based on their garbage.

The city of Toronto conducts its own study of curbside waste collection to determine patterns in waste generated and diversion habits. Consultants make records of the waste. The information collected is used to support new policies and practices intended to improve diversion, the city says.

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