[Image above] Credit: Craig Kirkwood, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Consumer Electronics Show, or CES—the massive convention that takes over Las Vegas every January to debut the year’s most wonderful, weird, useful, and absurd tech-related innovations—looked a bit different in 2021 compared to previous years, as the show adapted to the global COVID-19 pandemic by going all-digital for the first time.
Yet despite the virtual shift, CES 2021 once again unveiled some exciting new tech innovations for the coming year, including LG’s phone with a rollable screen, Samsung’s solar-powered remote control, LG’s 40% transparent OLED TV display, and Acer’s Gorilla Glass-adorned Chromebook.
There are many other CES 2021 tech highlights, yet what strikes me about most of these innovations is that they are directed toward convenience or experience rather than addressing a real-world problem. Sure, while a toilet that rinses with electrolyzed water might keep your toilet bowl cleaner and more sanitized, you could argue it is a relatively unnecessary invention—as is Toto’s toilet tech that somewhat strangely monitors its contents to gain insight into your health.
But one CES innovation that I came across recently caught my eye because it actually does address a pressing problem, one that I’ve written about on CTT before—the modern challenges that make our current recycling system a materials dead end.
As I noted in that story, more than 90% of discarded plastic around the world is never recycled. And many other materials that are even more recyclable than plastic, such as glass and aluminum, do not achieve the high recycling rates such materials could and should achieve.
Part of the problem is the economics of recycling. While China once imported a vast majority of the world’s recyclables, the country enacted import bans in 2018 that wholesale disrupted global recycling supply chains. And in the U.S., the domestic infrastructure to make recycling economically feasible simply is nonexistent in many places.
Part of the challenge with recycling operations in general is generating and maintaining individual, high-quality, pure waste streams.
Those “mixed-use” bins that allow you to combine your plastic, glass, aluminum, paper, and more all into one place—called single-stream recycling—are really convenient for consumers, but they introduce major challenges in terms of separating recyclables into their individual constituents.
That’s important because different materials have different processes for recycling, so having separate and pure material waste streams is an essential part of being able to effectively recycle used materials into high-quality new products. Discarded glass bottles need to be free from tin cans and plastic tubs, for instance, so that they can be melted down and remade into new glass containers.
Due to the popularity of single-stream recycling today, the task of materials separation now most often falls to recycling facilities. And while some use robots equipped with cameras and sensors to achieve this separation—technologies that are getting better with the help of machine learning—in many areas separating recyclable waste is a manual, imperfect process. That increases the time and cost required to generate separate material waste streams, and it also results in lower quality and thus lower value material waste streams.
So while single-stream recycling is popular because of consumer ease, it makes no other component of the recycling process easy.
Instead, multi-stream recycling, in which different materials are separated and collected individually throughout the entire recycling process, offers a much better alternative in terms of generating valuable and pure material waste streams. Yet multi-stream recycling systems are more complicated and require more coordinated efforts on the parts of consumers, municipalities, and recycling companies.
Such strategies are successful in standalone material recycling campaigns, such as glass collection programs, but these efforts are not widespread. These strategies also require consumers to clean, sort, collect, store, and often transport and deliver their waste to separate locations. While these efforts may be worth it in terms of creating highly pure waste streams for reuse, the added effort also prevents less dedicated consumers from committing to recycling, especially when they could simply toss their waste into a single bin at home.
So new solutions are needed to make recycling more effective, solutions that both generate high-quality individual waste streams and make it simple for consumers to comply.
Which brings me back to CES 2021. One of the most interesting innovations I came across was Lasso, a robotic appliance designed to bring the recycling bin and materials sorting facility right inside your kitchen.
Lasso looks like a heavy and somewhat bulky appliance. But it is what’s inside that counts—Lasso contains cameras, sensors, robotics, and mechanics that together can clean, sort, process, and store recyclable materials, generating high-quality and high-purity material waste streams right at their point of use.
The concept is that you simply insert your recyclable into Lasso, and it handles the rest. The appliance’s cameras and sensors scan the item to determine what it is and if it’s recyclable—if it is, Lasso takes care of all the prep work for recycling.
Hooked up to water supply similar to a dishwasher, Lasso first steam cleans the item and then crushes it and stores it in separated individual material bins. If the item is not recyclable or not an accepted material, Lasso simply returns the item to you.
Initial models of Lasso are set to prepare and store seven different materials—aluminum, steel, two plastics (PET and HDPE), and three colors of glass (clear, brown, and green).
A connected smartphone app lets you know when the separate material storage bins within the unit are nearly full, and then you can schedule a curbside pickup. By bringing these processes into the home, Lasso obviates the problems with separating and transporting varied recyclable waste streams.
Lasso is still in development, but according to a Gizmodo article, the company already has the capital to build the devices and plans to start shipping in September 2022, with planned curbside pickup service starting in San Francisco and expanding to other parts of the U.S.
Like many new technologies, however, the unit won’t be cheap—expect prices of around $3,500 once Lasso is available. Yet refrigerators also were not cheap when they were first introduced to consumers, Lasso CEO Aldous Hicks argues in his TEDx Talk about the technology.
The price would be expected to decrease with more widespread adoption, and Hicks also hints at other potential solutions as well as expanded capabilities in a Lasso blog post: “Without giving away too much, I can say that the second Lasso model will be able to accept paper and cardboard, plastic film and food scraps. By the time the second model is delivered, Lassos will also be offered as a service model, with an affordable annual service fee rather than an upfront appliance purchase cost. In keeping with a fast-growing technology company, all free cash flow is plowed back into R&D to drive down the costs and bring the follow-on products to market.”
Of course, having high-quality pure material waste streams also are valuable potential resources for consumers, so another option to offset cost of the device could be to sell these materials resources to companies—a potential solution, but one that would require reimagining the infrastructure and supply chain.
Ultimately, Lasso really is designed as a fully contained home recycling solution, one that could have a real impact if the concept catches on and its inventors can deliver on the technology’s promise. My fingers are crossed.