By Sarah Rollins | Photo by Cornell Watson
Seeing recyclable items end up in trash cans is frustrating to many, but rather than ignore the problem, four students were inspired to create an app that makes recycling easier.
East Chapel Hill High School sophomore Bo Chi and Chapel Hill High School sophomore Yichen Sun and juniors Ayden Xu and Savannah Xu are frequent volunteers for Chapel Hill nonprofit WE SENSE, which derives its name from its mission to “serve, engage, nurture, share and enrich” the community. WE SENSE often puts on creative and educational programs and service events, such as 2019’s Bloom Fest in downtown Chapel Hill, that promote environmental awareness. “WE SENSE provided us a platform to develop our own service learning interests and projects,” Bo says. Bo, Yichen, Ayden and Savannah then leveraged their knowledge and relationship with the nonprofit to create something on their own.
In 2019, the group started their first project, “Go Green – Holiday Action,” which focused on spreading awareness of the increased waste generated during the holidays from things like gift packaging and more gatherings. “Our main inspiration was that we noticed people around us oftentimes misplaced [recyclable] items, so we wanted to fix that,” the team says. They hosted three holiday-themed events where they quizzed their 700 attendees’ knowledge on recycling, demonstrated DIY crafts using recycled materials and showcased their new app, EcoEye, which uses AI vision technology to classify various waste and its recyclability. “If you don’t know whether something can be recycled or not, you can simply take a picture with EcoEye, and it will identify it for you,” Savannah explains.
Their hard work paid off when they received a President’s Environmental Youth Award for their Go Green project in April. “We are very honored and humbled to have received the PEYA award,” the foursome agrees. “To us, it is a symbol of the continued perseverance of our teamwork. This couldn’t have received the same results without the guidance of each and every volunteer who contributed their precious time as well as the support of our teachers.” The students credit the encouragement and instruction of past and present educators such as Chapel Hill High career and technical education teacher Garrison Reid, and Smith Middle School math teacher Dr. Boyd Blackburn and science teacher Regina Baratta.
The free app is not yet available to the public, as twins Ayden and Savannah are still polishing it. “We are still working to make EcoEye more accurate and plan to add new game features like a leaderboard to see who has recycled the most,” they say. “This not only makes the app more fun but also provides an incentive for recycling.”
While COVID-19 put the team’s in-person events on hold, they continue creating virtual projects that promote environmental awareness. In addition to the anticipated release of their app, the high schoolers are developing new mobile apps and helpful YouTube videos, all revolving around sustainability, on Yichen’s Tigersteve Tech channel.