Turning Over a New Leaf in Paper Recycling with AI Technology

Plastics recycling (or lack thereof) has received a lot of media attention over the past few years, especially since the enactment of the Chinese National Sword Policy in 2018. So many single-use products are made of plastics, including grocery store bags, restaurant straws, and take-away containers.

Plastic is also applied to most products that we use in our fast-paced consumerist world, including products purchased from online retailers, premade food delivery services, and just about anywhere else—even fresh fruits and vegetables at grocery stores.

We are able to see that plastic is obviously a synthetic material that doesn’t belong in our oceans, landfills, waterways or air. It’s made from oil, it never biodegrades, and it has been shown to affect our health by leaching toxic chemicals into our environment that can make us sick. It’s clear that decreasing its use and increasing its recycling is crucial to the environment.

Alternatively, paper has not received this level of outrage, despite making up such a larger portion of recycling streams in Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in comparison to PET plastics. Paper has been decreasing in value from hundreds of dollars per ton to zero, or even negative values in some areas, and dropping in recovered fiber material consumption over the last decade according to Colin Staub of Resource Recycling.

At least 40% of residential recycling streams are made up of mixed paper, which is mostly sent to landfills or incinerated given it’s recent drop in value. Cities are struggling with how to handle these materials and even dropping mixed paper collection altogether.

Why Recycle Paper at All?

So, if paper comes from natural resources and is biodegradable, why bother recycling it at all? It does biodegrade, it’s made from natural resources, and it hasn’t been shown to make people sick or poison the environment.

In fact, outrage against plastic materials including straws, bags, and even shipping packaging has spurred a switch from plastic to paper materials. And while this may be a better alternative, it’s still not ideal if that paper still ends up in the trash and virgin paper production continues to outpace recycled paper use.

Virgin paper products production furthers deforestation, which decreases the positive effects we receive from trees, such as turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, which combats the effects of greenhouse gases. Additionally, the breakdown of paper products in landfills still produces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Paper production also takes up energy, uses water, and produces solid waste—so even if it’s made from a clean, natural product, it can still do harm to our environment if done in excess.

Alternatively, according to Green America, using recycled paper production:

  • Produces 40% fewer greenhouse gas emissions
  • Takes 31% of the energy
  • Uses 53% of the water
  • Creates 39% less solid waste

 Put differently, recycling just one ton of paper can save 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 380 gallons of oil, 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space, and 4,000 kilowatts of energy. It’s hard to argue with those numbers.

Recycling paper also saves room in landfills for trash that can’t be recycled at all—like many plastics that haven’t yet been eliminated from production.

So, while paper is certainly a viable alternative to plastic, it’s crucial that we maintain a focus on utilizing recycled paper products whenever possible in order to reduce virgin plastics production.

But people are recycling paper still at a much higher rate than it’s being remade into products—so what’s stopping the process?

Increasing the Value of Paper in the Marketplace

Unfortunately, recycling is incredibly tied to profits. If there is no valuable market for a recyclable product, it’s likely going to end up in a landfill or being sent to an incinerator.

Factors at Play, an article put out by Resource Recycling this past October, capitalized on the importance of maximizing the purity of paper processed in MRFs in order to help it survive in today’s markets.

But it isn’t just China’s import restrictions that have caused a downswing in mixed paper value. The market started taking a dive after the U.S. economic downturn in 2010, nearly a decade ago. The good news is that new international markets are opening for U.S. mixed paper, for example India, where U.S. Corrugated, a box manufacturer that uses recovered fiber, is opening a plant in the coming months.

Paper is becoming more popular for sustainable new products, especially for food—such as takeaway containers and coffee cups. But production of paper for food products has much higher standards than for other purposes, so purity is still a central focus.

MRF’s abroad are working to increase purity of recyclable materials, decrease labor, and increase efficiency.  Converting from single-stream to dual stream recycling has been a popular trend, as has the incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) robotics retrofits.

AI Can Lend a Hand

A company in Florida is among the first to use the AI technology on fiber sorting lines to increase the value of mixed paper bales, with a count of 14 robotic sorters provided by AMP Robotics.

This enabled the company to reduce headcount by 20—but many of these employees will be retrained for other more specialized work, such as monitoring the robots.

There are still a lot of quirks to be worked out with AI, but the technology shows great promise in the recycling industry. These specialized pickers can work up to twice as fast as humans and with greater accuracy that can improve more over time with their improving algorithms.

In these times of volatile markets for recyclable products, it’s crucial that we don’t lose hope in the recycling business. New technologies are opening new doors for purity and efficiency, and sustainable materials are becoming more important than ever in the face of the climate crisis.

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.