Recycling system Superbin's Nephron to change recyclables to cash

Violet Neary, March 27, 2019, 9:30 a.m.

People throw out garbage every day, but with just a little effort, they can make money with trash if it's recyclable.

South Korean startup Superbin's Nephron is a waste recycling system that takes plastic bottles and aluminum cans and gives back points that can be turned into cash.

Unlike other reverse vending machines that read bar codes, Nephron uses artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to identify, sort, collect and process trash.

While South Korea operates the volume-based waste fee system and glass bottle deposit program, paying for used plastic bottles and aluminum cans is still a relatively foreign concept here.

As a result, the individual plastic usage per person in South Korea was the world's highest at 132 kilograms on average in 2015, according to Euromap, a European committee of machinery manufacturers for the plastics and rubber industries.

The trash problem has surfaced in the eye of the public after local waste management companies refused to take plastic waste last year amid China's expanded ban on solid waste imports. The Philippines' sending back more than 1,000 tons of garbage to South Korea last month was also an embarrassing moment for the government, which had to foot the shipping fees.

Kim Jeong-bin, founder and CEO of the waste management startup company, said it is critical to come up with a consistent national approach for plastic usage and recycling to deal with the trash crisis plaguing the country.

"I want to change people's perception about trash and their recycling behaviors by sharing our belief: Trash is money. Recycling can be play," Kim said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency at the company's Seoul office. "To build a robust collection system, a sense of environmental responsibility is not enough. Financial incentives are needed to change people's behaviors."

He sounds like an environmentalist, but the former CEO of local steel company KOSTEEL is a self-proclaimed "social entrepreneur" who explores ways to create economic value by solving social problems.

Kim especially focused on plastic waste as its actual recycling rate is less than 10 percent, much lower than those of paper and steel, due to inefficient collection, a lengthy washing process and cost burdens.

He says consumers need to consider plastic waste as a valuable resource and make it easier to collect and aggregate mixed plastics from households and businesses.

"Plastic waste's recycling rate is low because most of the material was designed to be thrown away from the manufacturing process," Kim said.

While many people separately dump plastic bottles and aluminum cans, actual recycling rates are lower because not everything in the bales is recycled. With a lack of processing facilities and pricing pressure, some of the mixed plastic bales are sent to developing countries for "low-cost" recycling.

Kim says the company's AI system is especially efficient when sorting "recyclable" and "non-recyclable" trash to make profits and return part of the benefits to its users.

"By studying data, the AI has become a trash collector with a master's degree in chemical engineering science from Seoul National University," said the 46-year-old, who completed a PhD program in economics at Cornell University and also has a degree from Harvard Kennedy School. "If the AI recycling system collects recyclable items from a conservative stance (by rejecting contaminated items), it greatly reduces time for the sorting process and cuts the washing time at the recycling factory."

The beauty of using AI is that it replaces processes that are difficult or dangerous for people rather than stealing essential jobs. He said low-cost laborers hand-pick recyclable items on fast-moving conveyor belts and are exposed to chemicals during the washing process, which uses strong detergents.

"As robots take in recyclable items, we don't have to pay for overhead costs, rental fees and additional labor-intensive process," Kim said. "We take in cashable items and directly send them to recycling factories. This is a unique logistics system not found anywhere else."

As it's still in the early stage of adoption, Kim expressed frustration that Nephrons can take only a tiny fraction of the plastic waste disposed of in the nation due to a lack of awareness of the trash problems and, sometimes, government bureaucracy.

Currently, there are 35 Nephrons installed across the nation, with negotiations currently underway to expand use of the system. So far, 3.5 million cans and 3.8 million PET bottles have been collected, according to its website.

While the financial incentive is a tiny sum, 10 won (1 cent) per PET bottle, Kim was confident the reward system for used plastic bottles and cans would play a significant role in reducing the amount of waste generated among consumers while also fostering recycling.

Last month, the four-year-old company attracted 2 billion won (US$1.76 million) in funding from electronics company Humax, which bet on the startup company's potential for smart city projects.

While the company currently focuses on the reverse vending machine, it aims to develop full-cycle waste management and adopt a certification system to give more points on eco-friendly labels to raise awareness among consumers.

"I'd like to build a full-cycle of waste management ranging from trash sorting, collaboration and recycling, and promote green products at the consumer level," the CEO said. "We a need a paradigm shift from a linear to circular waste management system."

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