The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Recycling should be easier. These home appliance start-ups are trying to help.

A new wave of home tech could help keep plastics out of landfills

Reusable plastic bags and unrecyclable film packaging are displayed in California. (Jan Dell/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Imagine, if you will, all the things you would want to put in your dream kitchen. An induction cooktop to replace some old, weak gas burners? An island, for more spacious food prep? Or maybe one of those fancy smart fridges, with cameras that let you see what’s inside without ever having to crack it open?

For a pair of start-ups we first met at CES, however, no kitchen would be complete without a new kind of home appliance: one that makes recycling a little easier.

Lasso Loop relocated from the United Kingdom to California to work on its product, a hefty home appliance machine that automatically sorts and breaks down the recyclables you toss inside it. And ClearDrop, founded by a Texas businessman named Ivan Arbouzov, aims to handle single-use plastic bags, one of the most odious artifacts of modern life.

There’s no shortage of high-profile tech firms trying to dial down their impact on the environment through sweeping climate pledges and about-faces on repairability. What has been less common are companies attempting to address the sort of banal environmental challenges — like what to do with all those bags from the grocery store — we face every day.

And while it might sound a little easier to keep a couple of dedicated recycling bins around, both companies are, in their own way, tackling a flaw in our waste management systems that many people probably aren’t aware of. As it turns out, much of the material we toss into our recycling bins doesn’t actually ever get recycled. That’s for a whole host of reasons: improperly cleaned materials can contaminate others that would have been recyclable otherwise, and some of the items people might just assume are recyclable — say, plastic cutlery — usually aren’t. And ultimately, that means more trips to the landfill.

Recycling is good for the planet. We need to get better at it.

In 2018 — the last time it published these figures — the Environmental Protection Agency reported that glass accounted for a little over 4 percent (or 12.3 million tons) of our total municipal solid waste. About a quarter of it was recycled. But of the more than 35 million tons of plastics that entered the country’s waste management systems that same year, just 9 percent was recycled or composted.

Perhaps the only surefire way to reduce plastic waste is for companies to produce less of it in the first place. In the meantime, start-ups like Lasso Loop and ClearDrop hope to make people more mindful of what happens to the materials they don’t need anymore. And while that’s easier said than done, both companies argue that their best chance to influence people’s behavior is to keep things simple.

For Lasso Loop, that means removing as much of the guesswork as possible.

In its current form, the company’s Lasso machine is bigger than a dishwasher but smaller than a fridge, though the team hopes to be able to squeeze the final model under your countertops.

What’s more interesting is the stuff inside: Lasso growth manager Dominique Leonard said the machine uses a smattering of sensors, cameras and AI to determine whether the stuff you’ve put inside it can be recycled. (Anything that doesn’t pass muster, like certain kinds of plastic, are summarily rejected.) From there, the remaining plastic, glass and metal products are steam cleaned, broken apart — seriously — and stored separately in a series of bins based on type to prevent contamination.

That might all sound a little convoluted — not to mention a little loud — but Leonard said everything worked as intended in the company’s latest prototype.

Even so, that sophistication will come at a cost, especially at first. The Lasso team plans to sell its machine for $5,000 — or $3,500 with a prelaunch discount — to start, though it hopes incentives from local governments will help lighten the load on potential customers.

ClearDrop’s Minimizer, a trash can-sized plastics compactor, is much less complicated by comparison. You’re meant to feed all of your soft plastics into a slot onto the top of the machine, and once it has had enough — Arbouzov said that usually takes around a month — the Minimizer heats and compresses the bags to form a slightly squishy brick. If your municipality is one of the rare ones that accepts soft plastics, you should be able to toss those bricks into your recycling bin.

EPA finalizes its first national recycling strategy

“If worse comes to worse, you can still take it to Walmart and put it in their box,” Arbouzov said.

In other words, you’re meant to toss your (acceptable) plastics into both machines and move on with your life. But for both companies, important questions still linger. Leonard and Arbouzov both claim that an important chunk of their future business will require them to partner up with manufacturers and recycling facilities that are equipped to turn those materials back into actual products. “There’s definitely plenty of companies out there who are looking for these materials,” Leonard said. “Especially these high value, clean materials.” For now, those key partnerships have yet to solidify. It’s also unclear how energy-efficient these appliances are, though Lasso Loop claims that its machine requires roughly the “amount of power required for a hot water washing machine cycle” to function.

These start-ups face another considerable hurdle: How will they handle all the stuff their machines create, especially if they plan to resell it?

The Lasso team will find out when it launches a pilot program with customers in the San Francisco Bay area next year. Once those first Lasso machines are live and full of precious glass and plastic bits, their owners are meant to schedule pickups from a smartphone app. But when people come to haul away those materials, they won’t be working from their local municipal recycling crew, but a team of people working on behalf of Lasso itself.

That means, beyond just building the machines to help people recycle, it must also manage a fleet of people who fetch those recyclables and make sure they go where they’re supposed to. That’s no small feat for a start-up that has spent much of the last two years refining the appliance itself, and explains why Lasso doesn’t plan to expand beyond the West Coast before 2025.

ClearDrop has similar issues to sort out, and Arbouzov ultimately hopes that he’ll be able to build a “loop between manufacturers, plastic packaging manufacturers, recycling facilities” and his products. For now though, he seems slightly more concerned with another goal of his: to be able to produce his Minimizers within six months, and sell them for just $150.

Whether that’s a realistic forecast or start-up founder bluster is difficult to say, but to Arbouzov, what mostly matters is getting people to think more closely about where their old stuff goes.

“What we need is to raise public awareness by building things like this,” he said. “You kill many birds with one stone.”

Loading...