Recycling facilities use robotic sorting stations and object-recognition technology to identify and put garbage in its proper place.
July 5, 2017
Filled with intricate mazes of high-speed conveyor belts carrying yesterday’s garbage, high-tech recycling centers use sophisticated sensors to sort plastic from paper from aluminum. While this technology may streamline sorting, it’s not smart or nimble enough to finish the job.
Behind the scenes, recycling workers continue to sort the materials, making sure cereal boxes don’t mix with soda cans. And because this isn’t just a dirty job, but a mind-numbingly tedious one, there’s particularly high turnover at modern recycling centers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the future of smart recycling is looking brighter. Spider-like robotic arms, guided by cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) — think of it as facial-recognition technology for garbage — are helping to make municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) run more efficiently.
“I think the way we move waste recovery forward is by creating new, innovative ways to process material,” said Thomas Brooks, director of technology for Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), which produces the Max-AI robotic sorter. “That is how we’ll get others involved, and how we’ll get more material recycled.”
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The world recycles just 14% of the plastic packaging it uses. Even worse: 8m tons of plastic, much of it packaging, ends up in the oceans each year, where sea life and birds die from eating it or getting entangled in it. Some of the plastics will also bind with industrial chemicals that have polluted oceans for decades, raising concerns that toxins can make their way into our food chain.
Recycling the remaining 86% of used plastics could create $80bn-$120bn in revenues, says a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But those revenues will never be fully achieved without designing new ways to breakdown and reuse 30% (by weight) of the plastic packaging that isn’t recycled because the material is contaminated or too small for easy collection, has very low economic value or contains multiple materials that cannot be easily separated. Think of candy wrappers, take-out containers, single-serving coffee capsules and foil-lined boxes for soup and soymilk.
Large companies have developed plant-based alternatives to conventional, petroleum-based plastic so that they can break down without contaminating the soil and water. The market opportunity has attracted small, young companies that focus on developing recycling technology to tackle that troublesome 30% of plastic packaging that is headed to landfills at best, and, at worst, to our rivers, lakes and oceans.
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