CircularNet: Reducing waste with Machine Learning

Posted by Sujit Sanjeev, Product Manager, Robert Little, Sustainability Program Manager, Umair Sabir, Machine Learning Engineer

Have you ever been confused about how to file your taxes? Perplexed when assembling furniture? Unsure about how to understand your partner? It turns out that many of us find the act of recycling as more confusing than all of the above. As a result, we do a poor job of recycling right, with less than 10% of our global resources recycled, and tossing 1 of every 5 items (~17%) in a recycling bin that shouldn’t be there. That’s bad news for everyone — recycling facilities catch fire, we lose billions of dollars in recyclable material every year — and at an existential level, we miss an opportunity to leverage recycling as an impactful tool to combat climate change. With this context in mind, we asked ourselves – how might we use the power of technology to ensure that we recycle more and recycle right?

As the world population grows and urbanizes, waste production is estimated to reach 2.6 billion tons a year in 2030, an increase from its current level of around 2.1 billion tons. Efficient recycling strategies are critical to foster a sustainable future.

The facilities where our waste and recyclables are processed are called “Material Recovery Facilities” (MRFs). Each MRF processes tens of thousands of pounds of our societal “waste” every day, separating valuable recyclable materials like metals and plastics from non-recyclable materials. A key inefficiency within the current waste capture and sorting process is the inability to identify and segregate waste into high quality material streams. The accuracy of the sorting directly determines the quality of the recycled material; for high-quality, commercially viable recycling, the contamination levels need to be low. Even though the MRFs use various technologies alongside manual labor to separate materials into distinct and clean streams, the exceptionally cluttered and contaminated nature of the waste stream makes automated waste detection challenging to achieve, and the recycling rates and the profit margins stay at undesirably low levels.

Enter what we call “CircularNet”, a set of models that lowers barriers to AI/ML tech for waste identification and all the benefits this new level of transparency can offer.

Our goal with CircularNet is to develop a robust and data-efficient model for waste/recyclables detection, which can support the way we identify, sort, manage, and recycle materials across the waste management ecosystem. Models such as this could potentially help with:

  • Better understanding and capturing more value from recycling value chains
  • Increasing landfill diversion of materials
  • Identifying and reducing contamination in inbound and outbound material streams


Processing tens of thousands of pounds of material every day, Material Recovery Facility waste streams present a unique and ever-changing challenge: a complex, cluttered, and diverse flow of materials at any given moment. Additionally, there is a lack of comprehensive and readily accessible waste imagery datasets to train and evaluate ML models.

The models should be able to accurately identify different types of waste in “real world” conditions of a MRF – meaning identifying items despite severe clutter and occlusions, high variability of foreground object shapes and textures, and severe object deformation.

In addition to these challenges, others that need to be addressed are visual diversity of foreground and background objects that are often severely deformed, and fine-grained differences between the object classes (e.g. brown paper vs. cardboard; or soft vs. rigid plastic).

There also needs to be consistency while tracking recyclables through the recycling value chain e.g. at point of disposal, within recycling bins and hauling trucks, and within material recovery facilities.


The CircularNet model is built to perform Instance Segmentation by training on thousands of images with the Mask R-CNN algorithm. Mask R-CNN was implemented from the TensorFlow Model Garden, which is a repository consisting of multiple models and modeling solutions for Tensorflow users.

By collaborating with experts in the recycling industry, we developed a customized and globally-applicable taxonomy of material types (e.g. “paper” “metal”,”plastic”, etc.) and material forms (e.g. “bag”, “bottle”, “can”, etc.), which is used to annotate training data for the model. Models were developed to identify material types, material forms and plastic types (HDPE, PETE, etc). Unique models were trained for different purposes, thus helping achieve better accuracy (when harmonized and flexibility to cater to different applications). The models are trained with various backbones such as ResNet, MobileNet and, SpineNet.

To train the model on distinct waste and recyclable items, we have collaborated with several MRFs and have started to accumulate real-world images. We plan to continue growing the number and geographic locations of our MRF and waste management ecosystem partnerships in order to continue training the model across diverse waste streams.

Here are a few details on how our model was trained.

  • Data importing, cleaning and pre-processing
    • Once the data was collected, the annotation files had to be converted into COCO JSON format. All noise, errors and incorrect labels were removed from the COCO JSON file. Corrupt images were also removed both from the COCO JSON and dataset to ensure smooth training.
    • The final file is converted to the TFRecord format for faster training
  • Training
    • Mask RCNN was trained using the Model Garden repository on Google Cloud Platform.
    • Hyper parameter optimization was done by changing image size, batch size, learning rate, training steps, epochs and data augmentation steps
  • Model conversion 
    • Final checkpoints achieved after training the model were converted to both saved model and TFLite model formats to support server side and edge side deployments
  • Model deployment 
    • We are deploying the model on Google Cloud for server side inferencing and on edge computing devices
  • Visualization
    • Three ways in which the CircularNet model characterizes recyclables: Form, Material, & Plastic Type

      • Model identifying the material type (Ex. “Plastic”)
      • Model identifying the product form of the material (Ex. “Bottle”)
      • Model identifying the types of plastics (Ex. “HDPE”)

    How to use the CircularNet model

    All the models are available with guides and their respective colab scripts for pre-processing, training, model conversion, inference and visualization are available in the Tensorflow Model Garden repository. Pre-trained models for direct use from servers, browsers or mobile devices are available on TensorFlow Hub.


    We hope the model can be deployed by, tinkered with, and improved upon by various stakeholders across the waste management ecosystem. We are in the early days of model development. By collaborating with a diverse set of stakeholders throughout the material recovery value chain, we can better create a more globally applicable model. If you are interested in collaborating with us on this journey, please reach out to


    A huge thank you to everyone who’s hard work made this project possible! We couldn’t have done this without partnering with the recycling ecosystem.

    Special thanks to Mark McDonald, Fan Yang, Vighnesh Birodkar and Jeff Rechtman

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