There is no short-term solution to the issues that are plaguing the recycling industry. Educating consumers on what they can recycle and how, building and updating domestic recycling facilities, and hiring and training more staff could take years, decades, or even generations.
However, Materials Recover Facilities (MRFs) see promising bits of improvements on the horizon that could speed up the process-, such as budding artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics technologies.
A Short-Term Fix, A Long One, Or Both?
There’s no doubt that consumers need to get better about knowing what they can and can’t recycle, and the single stream system might need to be reconsidered altogether in the coming years. However, in the meantime, Robotics and AI offer a quicker, more effective, and even safer way to sort and process materials.
AMP Cortex is just one of such technologies, a high-speed robotics system with AI that has smart vision, light weight arms, rapid speed and suction cupped hands. While a human worker might be able to sort 30-40 items per minute, these machines can potentially multiply these numbers by hundreds, and have already reached a speed of 70-80 items per minute with more accuracy than a human.
Additionally, the AMP Cortex is always learning new information about how to recognize and handle different items, and this doesn’t just help each individual robot—it educates all robots working across the country at the same time. This will keep precision and speed increasing over time.
Robots are able to focus on items that were previously overlooked in recycling, such as milk jugs, coffee cups, and margarine tubs. They are also able to assist in separating post-consumer fiber from cardboard to sheets of paper, recovering materials like wood, metal, electronics and concrete from demolition debris, and even reporting chlorine and moisture levels in items.
This technology can also increase workplace safety for human workers, who might encounter unsanitary or hazardous materials like used diapers, hypodermic needles, and rotten food. In fact, according to the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, sorters in MRFs may be twice as likely to incur accidents, injury, and even fatality at work compared to the average American worker.
While this may seem like a concern in job security for workers, AI and robotics technology are more likely to increase the quality of working conditions for human workers than they are to eliminate the need for them altogether.
Automated systems to separate plastics from bottles, aluminum cans, and mixed papers are already in MRFs, they just haven’t yet been perfected. The task to oversee them and compensate for their failings falls onto the shoulders of human workers. Misidentified items and jammed or overheated machinery can cause expensive equipment damage, a public safety hazard, and even temporarily shut down operations.
Plastic bags in the line can gum up sorting machines and light plastics and paper pieces are processed in giant machines that if contaminated with metal or glass can create high-speed projectiles. Human workers will always be needed to oversee operations and assist with the processing of recyclables—but the addition of robotics can make their jobs much safer, more satisfying, and more important.
AI and robotics also offer solutions to problems that human hands were fumbling to deal with. For example, purity and quality levels were often quite high and difficult for human workers to meet, even before China’s new policies.
Customers of what are called “secondary commodities” or recycled materials like plastic, paper, metal, or wood scrap, almost always want the material to be as “source-separated as possible”, meaning that it will be as pure and free from contamination as possible. This can be key to the goods they produce.
While this has always been very difficult with current sorting technologies, AI and robotics could help us reach new heights in purity and quality, which would not replace human work but enhance it.
While Ai and robotics may not offer a permanent, cure-all solution to the ails of single stream recycling and mass consumerism in the United States, what they can do is offer a helping (robotic) hand that ensures we will not simply shift the labor of sorting our trash from one vulnerable population to another.
And while long-term solutions may still be on the horizon, according to AMP robotics, their models will fit into an existing sorting station and can be installed in just 48 hours.
We will continue to stay on top of the latest trends in the recycling industry and provide the timeliest updates to our readers. Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry, we are here to help you navigate through all the recyclable import changes. If you handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill supply via our website or phone at 866-333-BERG. Talk to us about purchasing all your scrap paper, plastic, metal, textiles, glass grades, e-waste, and any other materials. Make sure to check out our new consulting department as well to help you navigate through any issues you might have.