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High School Student Takes Recycling App to Congress

The app is called RecycleBot, an application software that tells users whether an item is compostable or recyclable by photo analysis, and it has already won several statewide and regional awards.

U.S. cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
U.S. cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
(TNS) — Two summers ago, Tushar Mehta was walking at Allentown’s Trexler Park with his mother when he saw garbage littered beside a nearby trash can. This unseemly sight sparked an idea for the now-freshman Parkland High School student.

“I thought maybe they just did that because they were too lazy to put it in the trash can, but also they might not have known where to put it,” said Tushar, 14, who was thinking about potential science project ideas at the time. “It just got into my head that I could make an app where you could classify the trash.”

Tushar went on to create RecycleBot, an application software to tell users whether an item is compostable or recyclable by photo analysis. Tushar’s RecycleBot won awards in both state and regional science fair competitions before being chosen by Democratic Rep. Susan Wild as the 2022 Congressional App Challenge Winner for the 7th District this past December.

The Congressional App Challenge is an annual competition launched in 2015 for middle and high school students across the country. It’s meant to foster interest in coding, computer science and STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.

“This is not at all a partisan issue,” Wild said. “I think people across the board agree that we need to be encouraging students in STEM fields generally. Coding is clearly a very big part of that in today’s economy and with today’s technologies.”

Each year students submit their self-created apps for consideration to their representative’s office, and then district winners are invited to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate their apps at an event called House of Code in the spring.

“This is a big accomplishment, definitely very good news, but I think in some sense, he’s just genuinely interested in that type of work,” Tushar’s father, Sanjay, said of his son.

Both of Tushar’s parents work in computer science or engineering at Air Products. The two said they are excited to see their son take an interest in coding.

“At Air Products, we try to keep up with all the new techniques, but they are changing so fast,” Sanjay Mehta said. “I personally believe that there’s a lot of opportunity for the kids to really advance in this area, so we are happy that he finds this interesting.”

Tushar’s app beat out other local app entries: one for users to identify safe drinking water and another for students to schedule their classes and homework.

“I also consider myself to be an ardent environmentalist, and so it caught my eye in part because of his description that it would tackle environmental challenges,” Wild said.

To use RecycleBot, users upload a photo of an item to find out whether to recycle it. If RecycleBot determines the item is greater than 50% recyclable, it should be recycled. If it is greater than 50% compostable, it should instead be disposed of in the regular trash.

“My understanding is from people who are in the business of recycling materials, that they get all kinds of products that really shouldn’t be part of the recycling chain,” Wild said.

Tushar used Python, a programming language, to develop the app, which will eventually be available for anyone to access on a web browser. Right now, the app exists on a server that’s not accessible to the public.

When a user uploads a picture of an item, the app runs through a training set, containing more than 20,000 images of items that are either compostable or recyclable.

“The fact that he identified that he needed to use quite a bit of data to make the algorithm correct up to a good degree was very impressive,” said Arielle Carr, a computer science and engineering assistant professor at Lehigh University who helped Wild’s office judge the app entries.

Tushar also created a testing set with about 10,000 images to make sure the app isn’t too precise — this way it can recognize the random items users may upload, not just the training set images it’s used to analyzing. The app has an accuracy rate of more than 90%.

“It isn’t just based on the image, it [analyzes] the different colors and the shape of the item versus the actual item itself,” Tushar said.

Carr said those not familiar with coding, could think about a training set in terms of viewing pet photos: “If I show you a bunch of pictures of dogs, and I say, ‘This is a dog,’ ‘This is a dog,’ and then I show you a cat and say, ‘This is not a dog.’ … what I’ve already just explained is the training set.

“If I were to show you a different dog that you had not yet seen and say, ‘What is this?’ And you were to say, ‘Based on what you’ve trained me on, given this test, I say, ‘This is a dog,’’ then … you correctly answered with the training sets.”

Chris Gahman, who teaches Introduction to Engineering Design at Parkland, said Tushar’s inquisitive nature and critical thinking skills make him adept at STEM subjects.

“He’s really good at asking questions and knowing what the right questions are to ask,” he said. “Tushar definitely has an ability to identify a problem and then work through a process to solve it.”

When it comes to coding, it’s the trial and error process that Tushar enjoys the most.

“I feel like that motivates me to get past that stage, and keep on moving,” he said. “I also like the way that it functions and how you can make your own app, like that’s super cool.”

Tushar will demo RecycleBot at the Capitol in April.

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