How Helpful Are Robots In America's Recycling Centers?
Sat, December 3, 2022

How Helpful Are Robots In America's Recycling Centers?

The US has embraced a convenient single-stream recycling approach that allows people to throw plastics, metals, glass, and paper into one collection bin. / Photo by: rawpixel via 123rf


Do you want to spend hours picking through a stream of garbage? No one wants to do that. Hence, many recycling operations utilize automated systems to segregate glass bottles, plastic containers, aluminum cans, and mixed paper, according to Jeremy Hsu of Scientific American, a popular science magazine. But these systems are not perfect. Therefore, humans must do their part to pick up anything the system failed to catch. 

In the United States, each citizen tosses an average of 2,555 pounds of trash each year, 75 percent of which are estimated to be recyclable. Unlike most industrialized states, the US has embraced a convenient single-stream recycling approach that allows people to throw plastics, metals, glass, and paper into one collection bin. This leads to high recycling rates and efficient collection. 

Sadly, it worsens contamination since 20 percent to 25 percent of submitted items are unrecyclable. The problem stems from confusion along with “wish recycling,” which refers to throwing something into the bin in the hopes of giving it a new life. 

America’s Recycling Crisis

Until now, the recycling industry of the US is in crisis two years after China banned imports of “low-value recycling,” wrote Adele Peters of Fast Company, a monthly American business magazine. The ban made sense considering that some shipments were poorly sorted or contaminated with garbage. Unsurprisingly, they were nearly worthless. Moreover, America’s recycling infrastructure was not “working well” as it had been previously used to easily outsource the “quality challenges to China.” 

US recyclers had difficulty finding buyers. Without China, some cities sent recyclables to landfills or incinerators. Other cities reduced the types of material they accept or canceled curbside recycling completely. Currently, a new recycling infrastructure is being constructed in the US to address the problem.

One part of the issue at hand is “what happens at recycling bins” given that customers are puzzled as to which is actually recyclable. Another problem is “what happens at the centers” that sift through truckloads of recycling waste from cities. 


America’s recycling infrastructure was not “working well” as it had been previously used to easily outsource the “quality challenges to China.” / Photo by: cylonphoto via 123rf


Single Stream Recyclers’ Robots

Single Stream Recyclers, a recycling center in Florida, has 14 AI-powered robots to identify and sort materials such as cans, bottles, boxes, and other recyclables moving down the conveyor. They can move twice as fast as humans accomplishing the same task. The center is one of the latest to install technology from Colorado-based startup AMP Robotics. 

Founder and chief executive at AMP Robotics Matanya Horowitz said “this will be a transformative technology for the recycling industry, enabling people to see and understand various kinds of consumer packaged goods. It “opens up all kinds of automation” if we can see and record what is going on. 

The startup’s robots can segregate 80 items per minute and they can accomplish the task more accurately too. The robots’ software uses machine learning to recognize each object. Horowitz explained, “We show the system literally millions of examples of different objects, and it figures out the different patterns in this data. Then, it begins to learn different various things like shapes, logos, and textures.” For instance, a particular logo may be associated with #1 plastic or a particular shape is correlated with a box of cereal. 

Most sorting facilities or material recovery facilities (MRFs) use equipment from the mining industry to identify materials by shape or density. But this piece of equipment is an imprecise system. For example, a bale of paper might include aluminum cans or plastic bottles. Workers who manually sort out waste can find those contaminants. However, facilities are understaffed since the work is unpleasant and monotonous. 

For now, humans work together with robots to help remove larger contaminants like pieces of wood. Nevertheless, it’s a good job for robots. AMP Robotics said the robots will be able to work faster as the technology develops. It’s possible to obtain high-value materials that a recycling center can sell at a profit. It’s also possible to extract materials that haven’t been recycled in the past such as coffee cups. This material uses high-value paper, but it has been too difficult to sort.   

Robots Are Helpful in Recycling Centers

Lillian Chin, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and lead author of a paper on a RoCycle system, explained that AI solutions enable individuals to “preserve this convenience and widespread adoption of single-stream recycling” while guaranteeing that people are not shifting the labor to more vulnerable populations. 

Robots can precisely sort through items at superhuman speeds and may allow them to join the recycling lines. Companies should also educate people about what they can recycle and how. That would mean instructing them not to add Christmas lights, garden hoses, and plastic bags into the mix. 

Robots are helpful in making the recycling process in the US faster and more efficient. Still, it doesn’t hurt to start at the basics. People need to be taught which material is recyclable or not. Robots alone cannot solve America’s recycling crisis. Recycling facilities should also do their part to address the flaws of the American recycling system. At the end of the day, technology and humans need to work together to address this issue.