Can Robotics and the Cloud Rescue Our Recycling Industry?

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

The novel coronavirus has had a chaotic impact on humanity’s carbon footprint. Transportation-related emissions are down, while home energy usage is likely to go up. With offices, restaurants, and other businesses temporarily shuttered, commercial garbage production in the United States has fallen dramatically—but in the wake of dozens of shelter-in-place mandates, residential waste has risen by as much as 30 percent.

In most places, waste and recycling companies have been deemed “essential,” meaning that frontline employees like curbside collectors continue to make their daily rounds. But many of these employees have expressed concern for their safety. In New York City alone, hundreds of sanitation workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and at the time of publication, at least one has died.

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For sorters—people who manually pluck through waste streams on conveyor belts at materials recovery/reclamation facilities (MRFs)—concerns about exposure to infectious disease are an added worry on top of already-challenging conditions. Waste sorters at MRFs often stand shoulder to shoulder and are at risk of coming into contact with tainted packaging—issues that existed long before coronavirus was part of the global vernacular.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, refuse and recyclable materials collection is one of the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S. According to Glassdoor, the median annual salary for waste sorters hovers around $24,000. These jobs tend to have high rates of turnover and are often performed by incarcerated labor.

Even in pre-pandemic times, robotics were already being used to improve safety at waste sorting centers. AMP Robotics, a company that develops artificial intelligence (AI)-infused products that aid in recycling processes, has systems deployed all over the U.S., as well as in international markets like Europe. Today, their recycling robotics technology is seeing an unprecedented boost—one that may stick around even after the threat of COVID-19 dissipates.

The Recycling Industry Reacts

Chris Wirth, head of marketing and business development at AMP Robotics, explains that there’s a real business element to recycling that transcends the obvious environmental benefits.

“We think about recycling as reducing waste, but it’s also a big part of the raw materials and supply chain when it comes to manufacturing goods in the U.S.,” he says.“It’s a really complex issue that is now weaving itself into new challenges with public service and safety and infrastructure.”

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There are five key trends that the industry is responding to right now, says Wirth. The first is a massive volume shift—the drop in commercially produced waste and the rise in curbside residential refuse. The second is a rapidly changing material stream, which is impacting the entire supply chain and production cycle. “We’re all at home ordering toilet paper and Amazon boxes, etc. That’s spiking a demand and also a trend for cardboard,” Wirth says.

Consumer habits and municipal policies are also giving the industry whiplash. “We’re retroactively taking a step back [in some ways],” he says, noting a rise in single-use plastics. “We’re ordering food in more; we’re getting more plastic containers from [delivery services].” Wirth’s home city of San Francisco—one of the first places in the country to outlaw single-use plastic bags—has made an about-face in its policies, actually outlawing reusable bags in grocery stores in some counties. Starbucks has also banned customer-brought cups for the time being.

Finally, there’s the issue of contamination—which was already a loaded word in the recycling industry. In recycling, purity matters. The more “pure” a batch of polyethylene scraps or correlated cardboard is, the higher its value and the more likely it can be reused. Right now, industry professionals are struggling with up to 20 percent more contaminated materials—i.e. non-recyclables that end up in the bin, or items like grease-soaked pizza boxes, which are not typically recyclable.

The coronavirus-era connotation of “contamination” is a whole new beast, says Wirth. Sanitation workers may be exposed to garbage coming out of homes of people infected with COVID-19, though there’s still debate about the exact level of risk associated with touching surfaces. But at MRFs , where incarcerated labor is common, there’s significant reason for caution—prisons are veritable petri dishes for the coronavirus. To prevent potential exposure, many prisons have suspended inmates’ work at municipal recycling centers.

Rather than risk the lives of sorters—or anyone who handles recyclables along their often convoluted journey—many places are opting to simply pause recycling programs altogether. But AMP Robotics and similar organizations argue there’s an alternative—and smarter—option.

Recycling Robotics: How It Works

AMP Robotics has seen a huge spike in demand for its products over the past few weeks. Not only can the technology help sorting facilities pivot quickly to respond to changing industry trends, but it can also take a great deal of the risk out of the equation by leaving manual sorting up to machines.

One of AMP Robotics’ core products, AMP Cortex, which is deployed around the U.S. and internationally, uses AI, computer vision, and robotics to quickly sort through waste to recover recyclables and resell them as raw materials.

Computer vision “eyes”—industrial cameras housed in hardware enclosures—examine and photograph commingled streams of waste coming down the conveyor belt at recycling facilities. The machine’s “brain,” which uses AI and deep learning, processes millions of images in real time to log the visual identity of, say, a milk jug—it learns what color, size, texture, label, brand, and other form factors to associate with this item, then logs it for later reference.

The technology has an extremely high rate of accuracy (upwards of 98 percent, says Wirth) for identifying and separating materials, even if they’ve been squashed, tattered, or are partially covered by other garbage.

“Robotics historically have been focused on factory automation… But now, one of the biggest things we can provide is a level of intelligence, so that robots can perform more complex tasks.”

—Chris Wirth, head of marketing and business development, AMP Robotics

“Robotics historically have been focused on factory automation, doing the same thing over and over again, like building a car or picking out packages. But now, one of the biggest things we can provide is a level of intelligence, so that robots can perform more complex tasks,” says Wirth.

AI-fueled precision is about more than just keeping waste out of landfills. “It affects the value and purity of that raw material,” says Wirth. “So, we’re increasing our ability as a society to recycle at much higher rates. But we’re also addressing a lot of the institutional issues in order to modernize our recycling infrastructure and make it more efficient and cost effective.”

Looking to the Cloud

When it comes to reducing, reusing, and recycling, it’s not just the sorting process that has potential for optimization through technology. Cloud-based waste management programs, explains Michael Hess, CEO and founder of Waste Harmonics, a managed waste service provider based in New York, are “game changing.”

“…many businesses are pressed with unexpected fluctuations in their waste needs and are tasked with making timely adjustments. This is where a cloud-based waste management program [comes in].”

—Michael Hess, CEO and founder, Waste Harmonics

“During this unprecedented time, many businesses are pressed with unexpected fluctuations in their waste needs and are tasked with making timely adjustments. This is where a cloud-based waste management program [comes in],” says Hess.

Waste Harmonics, for instance, offers iWaste, an intelligent container solution that’s currently being used in businesses ranging from hotels to convenience and grocery stores, and even within apartment and retirement communities. It’s a cloud-based dashboard that helps businesses remotely monitor waste and recycling programs, aided by advanced analytics.

The software tracks “real-time fullness status” for containers, balers, vertical packers, and, by the end of the year, will also work with small dumpsters. It records data points about pick up and return status, haul history and scheduling, and more. Currently, around 1,000 compactors with iWaste are deployed, and iWaste for small containers is in about 100 beta test locations, with plans to ramp up to thousands of installs in the second half of 2020.

According to Hess, waste data helps customers reduce the number of hauls by as much as 30-40 percent—which, theoretically, means it can limit the number of times sanitation workers have to come by for collection and risk potential exposure.

At AMP Robotics, Wirth notes that data collection and analysis in general is perhaps the most critical catalyst for the evolution of the industry.

“The physical manifestation of what we’re doing is robotics and sorting, but the bigger picture is what we’re doing to really understand our waste stream,” he says. “All this data is being captured and enriched by machine learning, which is just getting better. We’re working on new applications and integrations for how we utilize this data to further improve recycling operations, as well as provide data transparency for measurement.”

Ultimately, data may inform high-level policy and even manufacturing best practices—Wirth says AMP Robotics is in talks with a number of consumer packaged goods companies to help them adapt their packaging and make it more easily recyclable.

“That’s really the next level—using our technology to drive economies of scale to execute on new materials, as well as make more materials recoverable and recyclable,” says Wirth. “Our end mission is really to enable a society without waste.”