How good are Americans at recycling? Apparently not so great: only 34% of all recyclable material is actually recycled—the rest ends up in landfills. And on the flip side, lots of trash ends up in the recycling stream by mistake, gumming up the works.
NC State alumnus John Starke founded Raleigh-based startup MyMatR (pronounced “my matter”) in 2019 to solve these waste inefficiencies. MyMatR—which is currently participating in the eighth cohort of the RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP)—has developed the world’s first automatic waste-sorting container that also comes equipped with a trash compactor and even collects waste-stream data analytics.
The patent-pending container uses IoT image recognition to sort items at the time of disposal as either trash or recycling, thereby diverting recyclables from entering the landfill and preventing trash from contaminating the recycling stream. Adjustable fullness sensors send alerts when the trash and recycling containers are ready to be collected while the built-in trash compactor, by reducing the volume of trash, reduces the number of pickups required.
“We have the technology to improve recycling efficiency in the U.S.,” Starke said. “At MyMatR we believe the best way to use the technology is to sort waste at the source, starting at the very beginning of the entire waste process when someone throws something away.”
Each MyMatR smart waste container contains two 20-gallon subcontainers and the target price is currently about $3,000, Starke said. Starke completed the minimum viable product (MVP) for the automatic waste-sorting unit in July 2020 and ran a three-month pilot test with Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons High School. The unit exhibited a high rate of sorting efficiency during the pilot test, which Starke said has significant implications for solving the problem of recycling contamination.
That’s because proactively sorting items at the time of disposal is a much easier solution than retroactively retrieving trash out of the recycling stream, Starke said.
Starke presented data from the first pilot test to the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which he said responded eagerly to the potential of using the technology in public places to reduce away-from-home recycling contamination.
He also presented his findings to NC State, where he began another three-month pilot test in June.
Starke is actively seeking more people to participate in three-month trials—preferably businesses or organizations in high-traffic public places—and said anyone interested can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next generation of IoT smart waste containers
The high rate of recycling inefficiency in the U.S. is in part because rules on what is and isn’t recyclable are variable between regions and hard to follow. That’s compounded by the fact that many people lead busy lifestyles and don’t have the time to stop and think if something is actually recyclable beyond the moment they throw something away, Starke said.
“I call it ‘wish cycling,’ when individuals think an item is recyclable and throw it in the recycling bin when it’s really not,” Starke said. “Automatic sorting prevents this from even happening.”
Starke graduated from NC State in 2015 with a degree in Material Science and Engineering and worked as an engineer for the aerospace company PCC Airfoils until founding MyMatR in July 2019. He he now works on MyMatR full-time.
Starke founded MyMatR not only to solve waste inefficiencies but because he noticed no real-time recycling data is gathered on a micro level, which he believes is essential in making people take responsibility and feel urgency over the gigantic recycling problem in the U.S.
“A band-aid solution won’t fix the mountain of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean,” Starke said. “The problem is quite literally so massive that people don’t feel a sense of ownership, and unless that changes, the problem will keep on festering.”
To help individual businesses and municipalities better understand their waste stream and their individual recycling efficiency, MyMatR’s smart waste unit collects waste stream data analytics at the time of disposal, with timestamps recording every item that was discarded.
Starke’s vision is for the unit to collect even more real-time data to imbue a sense of urgency in individuals, such as by putting a QR code on each device that people can scan to see the end destination and environmental impact of the thing they threw away. The “my” in “myMatR” is meant to emphasize how individuals hold personal ownership over items they use and then discard. The “mat” is short for “material” and the “R” is short for recycling, Starke said.
“When you buy a Coke bottle, that’s your bottle, it is your material that you are contributing to the landfill,” Starke said.