Advanced robotics will revolutionize MRF operations

In as few as 5 to 6 short years, sophisticated robotic technology could provoke a major paradigm shift in the recycling industry. While robotics is by no means a nascent branch of science, strides in artificial intelligence (AI) and sensors have enhanced the technology’s capabilities.

Major changes are expected on the horizon, according to International Solid Waste Association President Antonis Mavropoulos: the sorting workforce will be replaced by highly accurate robots that will drive down contamination rates and speed up the sorting process. In addition, material characterization software can easily adapt to changing waste streams.  Real world experiments are already underway at European and American waste and recycling facilities to test the extent robots can heighten operational efficiencies.

In Sun Valley, California, Athens Services invited Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) to install Max-AI at one of their material recovery facilities (MRFs). The technology is equipped with a vision system that provides information and a quality control unit that sorts up to 6 different materials into the appropriate bins. The machine is being used to clarify Athens’ PET stream for cleaner bales that fetch premium market prices – a competitive advantage given the current state of American material trade with China.

To overcome the difficulties posed by food and beverage cartons, the Carton Council of North America partnered with Alpine Waste & Recycling and AMP Robotics. Alpine installed the AMP Cortex, a robotic sorter equipped with visible-light cameras and intelligent computer programming. Advanced algorithms allow the computer to learn and recognize a vast array of material types, improving sorting efficiencies overtime.

AMP Cortex outperforms its human counterparts, running for 16 hours per day and grabbing 60 items per minute compared to a person’s 40 picks per minute. Furthermore, the system is constantly collecting an enormous amount of material data. Nonstop waste characterization could push accuracy rates to 98 percent in the near future.

ZenRobotics and Recon Services Inc. have also formed a partnership to evaluate robotic efficiency in separating multiple materials from a mixed waste stream containing construction and demolition debris of all shapes and sizes. The ZenRobotics Recycler is built to withstand nonstop industrial operations and sort multiple items in one location, reducing the cost of installation.

Above all, the Recycler is controlled by malleable software that can be reprogrammed to handle rapidly changing waste streams. The robot can sort wood, metal, and concrete one month and plastic, metal, and specific grades of wood the next.

Such field tests have revealed the optimization potential of AI-driven recycling robotics. MRFs equipped with autonomous technology will be able to instantly adapt to changing waste streams and legislation, increase capacity, and produce premium-quality feedstock at lower operational costs. AI will allow recyclers to respond to market flux with minimal disruption to their bottom-line.   

Intelligent recycling bots may be a number of years away from industry-wide implementation, but there are currently a number of optimization strategies recyclable handlers can enact to improve facility performance. If you operate an MRF or commercial recycling program, contact Berg Mill Supply to learn how you can boost your profitability and compete in a shifting market landscape.