How Robots are Contributing to Recycling?



Recycling Robots are Helping Businesses to Reduce Productivity Cost

Once the plastic or paper is put in the right place, most people forget about it. For the recycled material, that’s not the end of the journey but rather the beginning. Most of it gets trucked to an impressive recycling facility, where it is unceremoniously dumped on a concrete floor. Front-end loaders scoop papers, bottles, and various other materials onto conveyors that zoom off in multiple directions, frequently climbing to different levels like staircases.

Despite the commotion and looming machinery, humans play a crucial role. Workers are stationed at strategic locations along the conveyors, grabbing specific materials as they go by and placing them in a container to be taken somewhere else for further processing.

The sorting job has now been too complicated for machines to handle. But in a scenario becoming more common, robots are beginning to chip in. A mechanical arm may extend down to the conveyor in some facilities, pluck a plastic bottle using an air-powered suction cup, and then swing around and deposit it in the container.

As recycling robots are still assisting humans, industry leaders have developed robots that can identify different colours, textures, shapers, and plastic sizes and make it feasible to sort waste.


Robotics for Better Sorting

Robots have functioned for years on assembly lines like automotive plants, where they perform the same task repetitively. But companies are finding how to couple robotics with artificial intelligence to make the kinds of judgments needed to sort recyclables.

It isn’t the kind of high-profile task commonly involved with machine learning, such as driving automobiles or finding cancerous growths in medical scans, but it could save recycling companies.

All recyclables need to be separated into individual streams. For example, aluminium can’t be mixed with paper and plastic when it is remitted. That separation can be done at the point of collection. That is why some bins are fussy about what gets tossed in. Some recycling centre known as material recovery facilities or MRFs, will accept all the material combined in a few or even a single stream and do the separating themselves.

MRFs receive the mixed material with a single-stream collection and sort it all employing a combination of humans and machines like screens, rotating discs, density-based separation, forced air, magnets, optical material identification, and eddy current. After being sorted, items are baled and prepared for shipping to their final recycling destinations.

The single-stream collection is more convenient for consumers that lower the recycling barriers, and it allows one truck to transport all the materials together. But those advantages come with a trade-off that is contamination. As much as 20% of any given load of single-stream material may be unfit for recycling, being either the wrong items or tainted with dirt, chemicals, water, or food.

This technique can increase the quality of material output and, in some cases, double the resale value. As quality standards get stricter, companies are working fast to find reliable solutions. San Francisco is racing to become the first city to reach zero waste. Recology, a company that runs a large plant on the San Francisco Bay, completed a USD 11 million upgrade and planned to invest another US$3 million this year in high tech optical sorter robotics.