Reduce, reuse, recycle and… robots?

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A prototype of a new robot at AMP Robotics facility.
Mana Parker | Boulder Weekly

At Alpine Waste and Recycling in Denver, “Clarke” uses its suction cup arm to sort through cartons from the conveyor belt alongside his fellow human workers. Its camera identifies a carton and the robotic arm quickly swoops down to grab it and toss it into a bin. This innovation in recycling is transforming the industry, making it more efficient and cost effective, while also filling labor shortages.

Clarke, named after the sci-fi author Sir Arthur C. Clarke of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, is a recycling robot created by Autonomous Manipulation and Perception Robotics (AMP). Founder Matanya Horowitz, stumbled on recycling when looking for different sectors where artificial intelligence (AI) might be useful.

“Right now recycling takes a tremendous amount of manual labor. It’s a very challenging job; it’s very dirty, it smells bad,” Horowitz says. “There’s a lot of materials so you have to concentrate pretty hard.”

As a result, retaining employees in material recovery facilities (MRF), where recycling sorting occurs, is difficult. “I’ve never seen a recycling facility without a ‘now hiring’ sign out front,” he says.

However, robots like Clarke are helping to change that by taking over some of the more labor-intensive tasks difficult for humans. They can, for example, handle dangerous materials found during sorting such as knives and hypodermic needles.

Robots can also recycle at a much faster rate and with more accuracy than human sorters. For example, Clarke can sort up to 60 cartons per minute, whereas humans usually only sort around 40 cartons per minute. Even better, Clarke can do it all with 95 percent accuracy. Plus, with the use of AI software, technology like Clarke will continually update to recognize new packaging.

Human Sorters Work in Alpine’s Waste and Recycling Facility.

“They (the robots) have flexibility and the ability to take on new materials naturally without really changing the way the system works,” Horowitz says. This will give MRFs the ability to have a higher rate of quality during sorting, and therefore gain more revenue from the materials they sell.

Another key to AMP Robotics’ technology is accessibility. “We think it’s important to hit a really quick payback period,” Horowitz says. He states that cost concerns for the robot are much lower than usual for the industry, which normally has a payback period of four to five years. AMP Robotics payback period is usually less than two, making it easier for MRFs to adopt the technology.

Alpine Waste and Recycling, which was the first MRF to allow AMP Robotics to pilot Clarke in their facility, recognized the potential of this new technology right away.

“The future of the industry is finding ways to divert more types of materials,” says Brent Hildebrand, vice president of recycling at Alpine. “Technology is probably going to play a pretty big part of that.”

Looking to further improve the efficiency of MRFs like Alpine, AMP Robotics is now working on other pilot programs that recognize different types of waste other than cartons for sorting. New projects addressing plastics, electronics and construction and demolition material will most likely be announced this year.

The Carton Council, formed in 2009, also contributed to AMP Robotics’ pilot program, consisting of leading carton manufacturers Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Evergreen Packaging and Tetra Pak, and associate member, Nippon Dynawave. The Council provided a grant to Alpine Waste and Recycling in order to install Clarke at their facility, and also hopes to see the use of this technology become popular among other MRFs.

“The technology has widespread implications for carton recycling and the broader recycling industry,” says Derric Brown, Carton Council member and director of sustainability for the Carton Council of North America and for Evergreen Packaging, via email. “It can be adapted to other materials, including those considered hard to sort due to their shape or size or low volume in the recycling stream.”

In the future, Alpine Waste and Recycling hopes to continue to find more ways to innovate in not only their facility, but the whole industry. “If the technology continues to grow like it has over the last year, it will be one of the next important pieces to MRF operations, which helps drive those costs which on the supply chain will be passed along to the curbside recycling to make it more cost effective down the road,” Hildebrand says. ”It will not only help our MRF but also MRFs across the country.”

For now, Clarke stays busy at the facility in Denver sorting cartons, all while changing the face of the recycling industry.