Envirobank Container Recycling: A few bugs in the system?

Environmentally speaking, the concept of recycling makes sense. By recycling, we can save energy and re-use existing resources to create new products from old. The problem often is to do with how such items can be efficiently collected.

In some cases, recycling bins have been introduced which accepts all recyclables and depends on downstream sorting to separate the recyclables of interest. Other bins rely on the user to separate a certain type of recyclable from the others. A little bit of effort here can make a lot of savings when it comes to downstream processing.

Unfortunately, if you make such demands of your average person, some people just aren’t bothered enough to separate the recyclables from the waste and everything just ends up getting trashed. Another issue is education, or lack of it, resulting in non-recyclables being put into the recycling bin causing contamination of the items and possibly the complete loss of the bin (or truckload) of potentially recyclable materials. Additionally, some recyclable materials can be better handled than just by putting them into a bin – for example, bottles consume a large volume in the bin if they are not crushed (as most users do not crush them) thus requiring more human attention to keep the bin serviceable.

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A solution to this problem is the Envirobank reverse vending machine. The whole idea is to collect bottles and cans more efficiently and provide a reward incentive so that people will return to continue recycling their bottles and cans at these machines.

The Concept

As far as I can tell, these machines contain an ordinary computer booting from a USB key, a touch screen, a thermal ticket printer, some speakers, and a barcode card reader head. It also appears that the machine requires power and an internet connection, and the bottle/can handling path is their own unique development which contains a barcode scanner, an aluminium sensor amongst other components.

A user can choose to register with Envirobank for a rewards card. If they have a card, they can scan it across the reader-head before depositing their bottles to earn credits. Users without a card can interact with the machine directly without a card.

Bottles are deposited in the top right chute, where an internal handling unit “spins” the bottle around and a barcode scanner scans the code. A beep can be heard from the internal reader if it succeeds in reading the code. The machine uses the code and a database hosted online to determine if the bottle or can can be accepted. Where no barcode can be found, another mechanism is used to determine the suitability (e.g. aluminium sensor, optical sensor, possibly even the dimensions).

Ineligible deposits are dropped into the bottom right chute, where the items are to be removed manually and disposed of elsewhere. Eligible deposits are immediately crushed, resulting in a crunching sound, and then stored internally inside the machine until a service personnel empties the internal bin. The stored items are guaranteed to be bottles or cans and are more efficiently recycled. The compaction system ensures maximum storage capacity within the unit.

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Once all bottles or cans have been deposited by the user, the user will press the green button to end the transaction. Depending on the programming of the machine, they may or may not receive a reward – sometimes rewards are doled out on a random chance basis, other times rewards are “guaranteed” and this depends on how the machine is programmed. Where a reward is given, a selection menu appears on the touch screen, and pressing on one of them results in a thermal ticket being printed from the machine containing the reward.

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It’s quite a user friendly system and processing times are generally quite acceptable. However, the system is definitely not flawless.

The Faults?

The Envirobank system is generally quite usable, but I have seen several faults in the years the machine has been deployed at my university.

Once, the machine failed to boot entirely and was inoperable, stuck at the BIOS screen. It claims it was booting from an Imation branded USB stick, which was quite interesting.

I’ve witnessed problems with the internet connectivity or database server, where bottles with barcodes were rejected after a 20 second wait with a timeout error on the character LCD screen. I’ve also witnessed “Aluminium sensor needs adjustment”, with the resulting confusion of users who have perfectly valid cans being rejected into the chute. Inserting them three or four times eventually gets them accepted.

The barcode rewards card scanner has very little feedback as well, which results in uncertainty whether the card was accepted or not. As a result, I never really ended up using my card at all, as guest users without cards actually need one less step in their recycling and can still get rewards.

The rewards card system does create a little concern as to potential data harvesting. As they need your details to register your card, and they know what bottles have been deposited by UPC barcode, they could profile certain users and their drinking habits. Maybe this data could be valuable for beverage manufacturers. To have this correlation be a possibility could be of concern, and is another reason why I use the machines in “guest” mode.

Initially, when the machine was first installed, no rewards were configured. As a result, for each recycling session you did, after you pressed the green button, you got a slip of paper which said “Thank you for recycling with envirobank.” It was literally a receipt for putting in a few bottles – trading a bottle for a slip of paper.

More savvy users eventually realized they could leave the machine hanging and just not bother pressing the green button to save the paper. When rewards were configured, everything changed.

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People began to realize that if they deposited more than one bottle and pressed the button, they would only get one reward. If they deposited bottles individually and pressed the button, they would get an equal number of rewards as bottles deposited. As a result, people started to slow down their recycling, selecting a reward, waiting for the receipt, before processing the next bottle. The receipt paper, as you can see, is special and custom made too.

But there is a bigger issue with the rewards – namely that the system has no internal validity validation. All of the rewards pictured above expire before the date of issue – compare the issue date with the machine time/date printed below. As a result, users are being given worthless pieces of paper while initially believing they have won a reward when they haven’t! I didn’t have the heart to tell a girl in front of me who bought in a sack of 20 bottles that each of her vouchers wasn’t valid from the get-go.

Seeing as the machine obviously knows the date and time, it would be a simple check to have this one fixed. But it’s happened both last year and this year.

At the end of the day, given the limited patronage some of these machines get (just look at the voucher number versus date), I wonder if it is indeed the right way to go seeing as the machine is powered-up 24/7 and consuming power. I suppose electricity is still cheap compared to the material, so financially, it is probably viable.

Conclusion

The concept of reverse vending machine as a method to efficiently collect recyclables is not a bad one, and the machines are generally quite easy to use. Unfortunately, their reliability and programming isn’t exactly as good as it could be, and their utility is also not as great as it could be because of the limited deployment. People are unlikely to hang onto their bottles until they see such a machine, especially where there are no rewards or the rewards are faulty. Ecologically, trading in a bottle for a slip of paper is also potentially troublesome, and one should be concerned with the energy usage of the machine and potential data harvesting that could be going on.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

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