How robots could help solve the US recycling problem

(NEW YORK) — Recycling on a large scale has always proved to be a challenging endeavor, especially as the production of plastic surged exponentially after the 1970s.

But new technology made to streamline the process may help the U.S. make strides in eliminating the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills.

Nearly 300 million tons of waste is produced in the U.S. every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Only a fourth of that solid trash is recycled.

The need for automation in recycling centers is “obvious,” Matanya Horowitz, founder and CEO of AMP Robotics, told ABC News, especially since positions to sort through the trash do not pay well and can be dangerous.

Items such as bowling balls, skis, fabric and dirty diapers often make their way to the sorting center, Joshua Taylor, the manager of the Denver recycling plant, told ABC News.

Workers are on their feet in front of a conveyor belt all day, and turnover is high, Taylor added.

“At AMP Robotics, we’re using robotics and artificial intelligence to solve some of the primary challenges of the recycling business,” Horowitz said.

When Horowitz first proposed the idea, the feedback he received from people in the robotics field was not encouraging, he said.

“Most people in robotics that I knew thought it was a terrible idea,” Horowitz said, adding that they were “skeptical of the problems.”

But Horowitz persisted, convinced that the idea could work despite what the experts said.

He and his design team used a “unique” approach involving the use of artificial intelligence to teach the systems to identify a plethora of different materials, whether they’re bottles or cans and whether they are misshapen or have food particles on them, eliminating limitations of previous sorting machines.

“What I saw in recycling, the whole industry was being held back by these core challenges,” Horowitz said. “And if you could develop a vision system that could identify material, even though it’s been smashed and folded and dirty, you could deal with those core challenges, and you would unlock a whole lot for the industry.”

At the Waste Management plant in Denver, an average of 32 tons of waste is processed every hour, Taylor said, describing the recycling center as “a tough place to work.”

“So, you can imagine, every hour we’re doing about one and a half tractor trailer full of recyclable materials through the plant,” he said.

Recycling centers can install the robots in facilities “with almost no change to their existing operations,” Horowitz said.

The recycling industry is not achieving its full potential, said Susan Collins, the executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit that provides information, consultation, technical assistance and tools for recycling.

About 44% of greenhouse gases in the U.S. come from products and packaging, meaning that making recycling more efficient “represents the largest portion of what we can do” to reduce emissions, she said.

“People don’t look to the lowly glass bottle or aluminum cans and think, ‘Oh, that’s an opportunity for me to save energy and save greenhouse gases,"” Collins said. “But it is, and it’s huge.”

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