Can robots help provide us with recycling solutions?

The World Bank's 2018 report predicts that global waste will increase by 70 per cent by 2050. Unless we take urgent action to find recycling solutions, this will figure will continue to rise.

Even when people separate their trash correctly, the number of recyclables that are actually repurposed is marginal. Especially, in comparison to the amount of those that end up in landfills. However, a ray of hope comes from innovative robotic solutions that sort through waste to recover recyclable materials.

Have you ever stood in the kitchen with a plastic can or Tetra Pack container, attempting to identify its bin? Consumer misunderstandings about what can and cannot be recycled, increase recyclables that could be recovered but instead, thrown into already over flowing landfills.

Even when consumers make the right choice, the single-stream recycling system adopted in the US and the UK has disastrous effects. This system allows citizens to throw all recyclables into one container. On the one hand, the convenience of this system means that most citizens do recycle. On the other, sorting tons of merged trash is an expensive, time-consuming, and often ineffective process. In fact, pollutants often make the collected material too rich to be effectively processed. It is either returned to landfills or burned for energy production.

Therefore, the need for recycling solutions is imminent:

New hope from Automated solutions and AI in waste management

The gap between what’s collected and what’s recycled has led to huge investments in automated solutions. These solutions use AI and ML to separate mixed recyclables at waste treatment plants.

The goal of these automated technologies is threefold. The first goal is to improve the quality and purity of shipped secondary commodities. The second goal is to decrease the cost of labour. The third goal is to increase safety for human workers.

TOMRA of Norway, ZenRobotics of Finland, and Machinex of Canada provide customised sensor-based solutions to recycling companies. All these companies offer robotic arms that use computer vision systems, spectroscopic cameras, and data supplied from sensors. They use these technologies to separate items on a conveyor belt. It bases the separation on the perceived size, shape, colour, and conductivity level of the items.

These recycling solutions proved to be at least twice as fast as a human worker. As well as being equally accurate in recognising different materials. For example, an optical sorter produced by Machinex can sort recyclables at up to 3,000 objects per minute. Meanwhile, the average of a human worker is 800.

Touching the future with robotic solutions

The Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed another promising robotic solution. They have recently unveiled their trial RoCycle system.

This uses soft Teflon grippers with ‘fingertip’ sensors that imitate the sense of touch. Thus, allowing the robotic arm to separate objects by size, conductivity, and stiffness. Thanks to its tactile sensors, RoCycle can distinguish metal objects from objects that simply look like metals. This is since it can sense their rigidity and conductivity.

At the moment, RoCycle is much slower than a human worker. Also, it is not very accurate on moving targets. However, its developers are planning to improve its accuracy and dexterity. They plan to do this by combining the tactile data with visual data from cameras. This would allow the robot to become the closest possible alternative to a human worker.

Despite its current limitations, RoCycle has the potential to transform recycling practices. The ability to sort materials with precision could seriously reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. RoCycle's developers are continuing to refine their technology, positioning it as an vital asset in the fight against global waste.

The development of RoCycle is a testament to the power of robotics to solve real-world problems. With continued research and development, robots like RoCycle will play an increasingly important role in improving our future.

The human angle in waste management

Currently, human operators are still needed to dispose of what machines fail to recognise. Since misidentified items can not only pollute the purity of recyclable material, but also ruin expensive equipment. For instance, overlooked metal or glass objects can sneak in a paper-processing spinning machine and damage it.

However, it’s very difficult to find and retain a workforce for this job. This is as manually sorting trash is a dull, unpleasant and often hazardous task. As a result, waste treatment plants report that many employees quit within hours.

AI-based solutions offer a promising solution to this labor shortage.

By automating the sorting process, AI systems can handle the most mundane and dangerous tasks. Thus, freeing up human workers to focus on more skilled and rewarding roles. You can also use AI to monitor and manage waste processing equipment, ensuring that it is operating safely and efficiently.

The adoption of AI in waste management is still in its early stages. However, it has the potential to transform the industry. With the automation of the most boring and dangerous chores, AI can help to create safer and more fulfilling jobs for workers. It can also improve the efficiency and success of waste processing, which can help to reduce the environmental impact of waste disposal.

As the world's population grows and consumption habits change, waste is becoming an increasingly serious problem. However, there is hope on the horizon. Developers are creating innovative robotic solutions that can sort through waste and recover recyclable materials. These solutions have the potential to notably reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.

To learn more about the latest developments in robotics and AI for waste management, visit EU Automation's knowledge hub.