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Who Needs Paper?

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Apologies to the Dunder Mifflin Co., but paper is starting to irk me. I'm trying to be more conscious of my use of it, and to that end recently eschewed my subscription to the LA Times in favor of reading the paper online (not as fun, but not as inky, either) and I traded my inefficient old inkjet in for a monochrome laser printer that can print on both sides of the page. I even started buying paper towels and toilet paper made from recycled paper (which are like 25% more expensive, and I still don't understand why). But I realized that the little lazy environmentally-conscious voice inside me didn't really know the facts -- is paper really that bad? -- so I decided to do a little research. Here's what I found out.

5.jpg35% of material in landfills is paper, more than any other type of post-consumer waste, and it's also the easiest trash to recycle. And the amount of paper we use in the U.S. is only getting higher; in 2006 we threw away 85 million tons, a threefold increase from 1960. Most people are good about recycling newspapers -- only about 12% of them end up in landfills -- but things like office paper (44% trashed), magazines (59%) and phone books (81%) don't get recycled as often, so represent much of the paper in landfills. About half of all paper produced for consumption in the U.S. is kept out of landfills -- but we've still got a ways to go on that front.

Reducing the amount of paper that goes to landfills also has another environmental benefit: that means less paper is burned in trash combustors, reducing air emissions, and there's less material in landfills breaking down organically, which releases methane into the atmosphere, a powerful greenhouse gas. (This methane can sometimes be trapped and used as an energy source -- but only sometimes.)

But what about "saving trees," the mantra you hear paper-recyclers constantly repeating? Turns out that about 35% of the trees felled each year go to paper production, or about 4 billion trees. Fortunately, much of this comes from tree farms that re-plant trees after they're felled, though nothing can replace the old-growth forests which are still going under the axe to make toilet paper and phone books.

Paper alternatives
Just as we're finding alternatives to traditional fuels, we're also finding alternatives to traditional paper. Some paper makers have turned to something called "agri-pulp" as an alternative, which is wheat, oat, barley and other crop stalks left over after harvesting. Combined with recycled paper and other fillers, some paper makers are finding that agri-pulp paper makes fine stationery. Hemp has also proven a good replacement for wood pulp, though it's still bafflingly illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. There are other paper alternatives out there, too, but one of the major hurdles to embracing these new technologies is the cost of transforming traditional paper mills, most of which are only set up to process trees. At a cost of tens of millions of dollars per mill, they'll need some serious economic (or regulatory) incentive to make the switch.

Here are some more fun paper facts, via ecology.com:
"¢ The first paper merchant in America was Benjamin Franklin, who helped to start 18 paper mills in Virginia and surrounding areas.

"¢ Wood pulp is found in rayon material, laundry detergent, camera film, tires, and transmission belts.

"¢ The trees used to make paper in the United States come mostly from softwood forests-mostly pine-in the South and West.

"¢ In 1883 Philadelphia resident Charles Stillwell invented a machine to make brown paper bags so folks would have something to carry their groceries home in. Today more than 20 million paper bags are used annually in supermarkets throughout the country.

"¢ There are 747 million acres of forest land in the United States.

"¢ In 1998, over 1.6 billion tree seedlings were planted in the United States.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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