The coolest thing at Questacon is in the bin

The coolest thing at Questacon is in the bin
The coolest thing at Questacon is in the bin

Each year, 7.3 million tonnes of food waste are piled in Australian landfills, where they break down without oxygen, emitting greenhouse gases equivalent to those of the steel industry and the iron ore industry combined. 

To help large-scale businesses bend the catastrophic curve of climate change, students at The Australian National University (ANU) Capstone Engineering program have developed the Waste Check System, which measures and reports the weight of its contents in real time. Because food waste, recyclables, and general waste all have very different densities, facilities managers will be able to gauge and adjust operations for proper sorting to ensure that food waste is diverted from landfill. 

Nicknamed the “SmartBin” by Capstone students, the first ever Waste Check System is now operating at Canberra’s beloved Questacon science centre, which hosts 500,000 visitors per year. If successful, the system will be implemented at businesses around Australia and the world as early as next year.

“I got on board because of its tangible impact and because I could see the client was very passionate,” said Solomon Jones, a fifth-year engineering student at ANU. 

“It wasn’t until we saw the reactions of the potential buyers that I realised how much real demand there was for this technology.” 

Smart Bin team Having designed the software and built the first commercial prototype as a Capstone student in 2021, Jones served as a resource for the award-winning 2022 Capstone team, which fine-tuned the locking and code system. Jones then volunteered to install the Waste Check System at Questacon this month.

Capstone course convener Dr Catherine Galvin said the SmartBin project is a “beautiful example of how collaboration has produced real-world benefits”. 

“Capstone is an opportunity for our local industry partners to work with final-year students, benefiting from their systems engineering skills and from an on-going relationship with the ANU School of Engineering,” Dr Galvin said.  

From frustration to innovation

About a third (35 per cent) of Australians say they compost - compared to 73 per cent who recycle - and businesses are working to optimise their waste management systems to meet net zero corporate objectives.

Food waste produces 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 3 per cent of Australia’s. The culprit is methane gas, which is 25 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide. Australia has set a goal to halve its food waste by 2030.

Matthew Riches, Questacon’s Strategic Projects Manager, sees waste management innovation as part of Questacon’s mission, and he was proud of the progress he had been making.

Guided by weight and density measurements supplied by the truck operators, he had discovered ways to reduce the amount of food waste and recyclables sent to landfills. 

“We started using clear plastic bags and we gave instructions to the cleaners to look inside bags to know which bin to put stuff in, and it worked,” Riches explained. “We got a visible reduction, around a 20 per cent reduction, in our general waste weight.” 

This was a good start, but just as he was looking for ways to do more, his data source ran dry.  

“There was a change of contractors that was out of my control,” Riches said.  “I tried to analyse the data they sent me and there was no fluctuation. It didn’t look like they were weighing it at all.”

When Riches asked the new contractors if they could weigh the contents of bins as the previous contractors had, they said no.  The waste and recycling removal service they provided, which estimated such data, was the standard practice for the industry, and they would not be going beyond that.

Riches shared his frustration to Alex Northey, a Canberra-based tech entrepreneur and founder of Waste Check.

“I wish scales could be built onto the bins,” Riches said.

The Coca-Cola of waste management

Northey sent Riches an email the next day saying he had signed an agreement with the ANU Capstone project to engineer a solution.  

Two years later, the first real-word trial for the Waste Check System was up and running in Questacon’s Parkes Loading Dock. Riches called it a “huge coup for the Facilities team”.

“One of our environmental management responsibilities is to keep track of waste weights so we can assess the performance of our waste reduction initiatives,” Riches said.

Northey said that several property and waste management companies have shown interest in buying the Waste Check System.  

“There’s significant interest, not just here in Australia but also overseas‚” he said.

Northey was particularly excited about a conference call he had with executives at Colliers, a Canada-based commercial real estate firm that manages two billion square feet in 63 countries, including 2,000 assets in Australia. 

Northey said a Colliers national director in Australia envisions the Waste Check System becoming “the Coca-Cola of waste management”. 

“The industry recognises that food waste going to landfill was a significant problem and they were looking for accurate measurements to be integrated into their building management systems,” Northey said. “It’s all about providing that real-time intelligence and knowledge so they can make proactive, informed decisions instead of making them in arrears.”

In the future, WasteCheck systems will come with sensors that provide information about possible contaminants as well as the volume of waste. They will also be able to summon a waste collection company when the bin reaches a preselected weight.  

Currently, the data can only be accessed via computers onsite.  “But we’re working with a building management system provider to build it into an API [application programming interface] and then create a remote accessible interface,” Jones said.

Students thrive as innovation consultants

Jones continues to refine the project even as he approaches graduation. He has returned to Questacon twice in November to adjust the data interface. He looks back on his Capstone days with fondness, even though his time in the course took place during the pandemic shutdown when in-person collaboration with Northey and his fellow students was limited.

“It was good having something to do,” Jones recalled. “I actually bought a cheap stick welder and welded up all the framing at home. I learned how to weld properly and did all the first frames at home in the garage.”

Riches said development of the Waste Check System was “very Questacon”, a classic instance of a maker project with a “think-make-try-refine” innovation cycle.

That cycle was shepherded by Northey over two years of collaboration with Capstone students. In Semester 1 2021, the students designed a basic, minimum viable prototype. 

Before he could put the system to the test, Northey would need a commercially viable prototype and software package that was durable enough to stand up to the bumps and bruises of a real-world setting. That’s just what he asked of an all new Capstone team that formed for Semester 2, 2021. Jones was among them.

“My skill was in being able to solve the problem in a real-world capacity, where it is subject to harsh environments and testing conditions,” Jones said.

In the months leading up to the Questacon trial run, the 2022 Capstone team fine-tuned the SmartBin design and won first place (tied with Team TOTUS at the Capstone Showcase, a $1,000 prize.

Isaac Mahlab and Charlotte Jones (no relation to Solomon) represented the five-person team at the year-end presentation. They said they were “very honoured” to be part of the project.

“Waste is not the most glamorous nor interesting of topics to discuss, but it is an essential and important one,” Charlotte Jones said.

The newest design has a methane sensor and a keypad which identifies different users, which will be important for large buildings with many businesses as tenants. Bins will also have a locking system.

“After someone uses the bin, the methane levels and the waste weight are recorded and sent to our network,” Mahlab said.

The 2022 team faced supply chain challenges and delays, as well as a few manufacturing challenges that required Solomon’s attention.

“I was overseas and interstate a lot through the year which meant that it wasn’t until later in the year that I could sit down and knuckle the last stages of the project out,” he said.

During the two-year process, Northey recommended a welding company called Precision Metals Queanbeyan, which also operates as SRA Solutions. SRA Solutions has since hired Solomon Jones as a part-time Automation/Systems Engineer, one of many instances where Capstone projects have led directly to employment.

Dr Galvin, who is also the incoming president of Engineers Australia, Canberra Division, said she welcomes the recruitment and employment opportunities that result from Capstone projects, but the primary aim is to provide students with opportunities to “apply their systems engineering expertise, developed during their degree, to a real-world project”.

“I am very interested in discussing the Capstone opportunity with potential industry partners in our region. Please get in touch with me for a chat,” Dr Galvin said.

Read about ANU Capstone 2022 co-winner Team TOTUS

ANU Capstone Showcase 2021

Drone security leads to job security in ANU Capstone project

arrow-left bars search caret-down plus minus arrow-right times arrow-up