New Ramsey-Washington County program uses artificial intelligence to sort compost from trash

Composting in Ramsey and Washington counties is getting high-tech.

Residents of four cities there can now throw compost in the bin – and let artificial intelligence sort it out. In a way.

With the counties’ new collection program for food scraps, special compost bags can be thrown into garbage trucks, where they are picked up by truckers, driven to the counties’ waste facilities and sorted with the help of artificial intelligence and robotic arms that can pick them out.

If all of this sounds different from other curbside composting programs, that’s because it is.

“We’re probably one of the first communities with this size of a program to do it this way,” said Sam Holl, facility manager for the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center.

A pilot program was expanded in October to all residents of Maplewood, North St. Paul, Cottage Grove and Newport. It is expected to be available to all Ramsey and Washington County residents eventually.

Artificial intelligence and robots

Conveyor belts carry trash up to a small room at the Recycling & Energy Center in Newport, the facility where Ramsey and Washington County residents’ trash goes. There, a machine that bridges the belt scans trash as it moves through at 73 feet per minute, using artificial intelligence to identify food waste bags based on their color and size.

These food waste bags are not your ordinary compost bags. They are specially designed to stand up to the ride on the garbage truck and the conveyor belt.

When the AI ​​machine finds one, it tells a robotic arm right down the line where the bag is. In one quick, precise motion, the arm swings and grabs it, separating the food scraps bag from kitchen trash bags, expired Halloween pumpkins, and other trash.

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At least that’s how it happens most of the time. Sometimes the AI ​​glitches and sends the robot arm to grab a bag that looks like a Food Scraps Program bag but isn’t.

The technology is already used to identify aluminum cans, but using it to pull out leftover food bags is new, said Joe Heinz, the facility’s maintenance manager.

Workers at the facility teach the equipment: Anything identified as a food waste bag—correctly or incorrectly—is run through the machine again to see if it guessed correctly or not.

For now, food scraps are sent to a commercial composter. Eventually, they will be sent to be anaerobically digested to generate energy, Holl said.

Collection model

In Minneapolis and many other communities, residents can order a compost-dedicated cart that is picked up separately from trash.

In Ramsey and Washington counties, residents have been waiting longer for curbside composting, but the benefits of what’s called a “co-collection” model, where garbage and food waste bags are collected together, are many, said Annalee Garletz, food waste recycling program manager. supervisor.

Firstly, it is easy for residents and waste haulers because it does not change the structure of transport. Second, it is available to renters and homeowners at no additional cost beyond what they already pay for garbage. Counties cover the cost of the bags, which range from $23 to $32 depending on size, and ship them to participants.

Third, “it results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions because there are fewer trucks,” Garletz said. “There isn’t a separate truck that collects compost that has to go down the road and then to the plant.”

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With last month’s four-city rollout, the program is available to 40,000 households. As of Monday, 2,283 households had registered.

Sam Ferguson, program coordinator for communications and outreach, said she hopes to see more people participate in the program.

“The higher the participation rate of people sending food scraps, the better our technology will be,” she said. The better the technology becomes, the easier it will be for other local authorities to adopt it.

Residents of Maplewood, North St. Paul, Cottage Grove and Newport can sign up for the Food Scraps Pickup Program at

The timeline for adding other Ramsey and Washington county towns has not been decided yet, Garletz said. These residents can still bring food scraps to drop-off locations and can sign up for updates on the website.

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