The holy grail of recycling: AI-powered robots

The holy grail of recycling: AI-powered robots

By Richard van Hooijdonk

Our planet is facing a serious issue. Due to rapid urbanization, people are generating a lot of waste, which is especially the case with plastic. For instance, in 2015 alone, the world produced 448 million tons of plastic waste. Most of that waste ends up in oceans, and unless we take action, we might be heading toward disaster. If we want to make our planet more sustainable, we should increase our recycling efforts. Luckily, technology is here to help us with innovative robotic solutions that make recycling as efficient as possible and keep waste out of the environment.

SamurAI sorts recyclable objects faster than humans:

SamurAI, a robotic innovation developed by Machinex, is one such solution. The robot was showcased at the Waste Expo conference in Las Vegas earlier this year. This sorting robot uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify objects on a conveyor belt. It can recognize recyclables such as cartons, plastic bottles, and containers. After the robot identifies the object, it uses a suction cup to pick it up and place it into the correct bin. Compared to human workers, SamurAI is more efficient. Manual picking usually involves 35 picks per minute, while this sorting robot can perform up to 70 picks every minute. This will significantly reduce operating costs and improve overall productivity.

Some recycling companies have already recognized SamurAI’s potential. For instance, Lakeshore Recycling Systems, which is the biggest recycling company in Illinois, has already installed this intelligent robot in its recycling plant in Forest View, Illinois. The robot, which replaces two human workers, could save the company between $120,000 and $130,000 per year. The company’s CEO, Alan T. Handley, explains that SamurAI will help the firm to “contribute more to preserving the Earth and providing innovative as well as environmentally responsible waste and recycling solutions.”

TrashBot does the recycling for us:

Recycling is important, but not all of us are good at it. Rubicon reports that 75% of waste produced by U.S. consumers is recyclable, but only 30% gets recycled. Moreover, nine out of ten people would recycle if the process was a bit easier. The issue is that consumers aren’t always sure what can and can’t be recycled. Another problem is throwing items in the wrong recycling bins. Not only does this take time to separate at a recycling facility, but it can also contaminate other items in the same bin.

Such issues encouraged the Pittsburgh-based startup CleanRobotics to develop TrashBot. TrashBot is a robotic trash can system embedded with AI. Once someone throws an object into the bin, the system will harness the power of sensors and machine learning to identify the type of the object. It will also weigh it, drain any liquids, and place it into the right bin, while providing 90% accuracy. TrashBot is perfect for larger and high-traffic locations that produce a lot of waste, such as shopping malls, stadiums, and airports. In the future, CleanRobotics is planning to add LEDs to the system to let the user know whether the item they threw away is recyclable.

Could Bin-e trash solve the waste issue in Europe?

A similar innovation was developed by a Polish tech startup called Bin-e. The team at Bin-e created a robotic trash can designed to recognize and sort rubbish according to its category. The Bin-e smart trash can is equipped with a camera and sensors, and it relies on machine learning to detect and identify the waste that’s thrown in it. After it recognizes the object, it will direct the item into the right chamber. When the chambers are full, it will notify the maintenance team to take the trash to the recycling plant. Every time someone throws an item into the bin, its computer system will collect information such as the brand and quantity of items and the data will be automatically uploaded to the cloud.

The team at Bin-e believes their innovation could reduce Europe’s waste issue, since out of 213 million tons of waste produced every year in Europe, only 30% is recycled. Bin-e could make a difference, and it will be made available in Poland and Germany, after which it will be released to other markets as well, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Many sectors today are harnessing the power of robots to perform tedious work that would take humans much longer to finish. And the recycling industry is no exception. Thanks to advances in AI, recycling robots are able to sort objects more efficiently than humans. Although this technology is still in its infancy, we shouldn’t underestimate its power, and the magnitude of its impact on the recycling industry is yet to be seen.

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