Trash to be Terminated? Waste Sorting Solved with AI-Powered Robots
COVID-19 and China
Waste sorting. Image Credit: Pexel

Europe and the US are facing a recycling crisis that is burying cities and towns in tens of millions of tons of garbage a day. The problem began last year when China, the world’s largest recyclable processor, stopped accepting garbage due to contamination problems and an excessive amount of plastics overwhelming its own processing facilities. The country has implemented strict standards for the recycling materials it will accept, requiring contamination levels in a plastic bale, for example, to measure max one-tenth of 1 percent.

China’s ban on waste trade and strict policies on recycled materials have triggered new plans in the West. According to a ruling passed by the European Parliament last year, Europe will have to recycle 55 percent of all municipal waste by 2025.

The situation is even worse for the US. Unlike Europe, where waste recycling was relatively advanced prior to China’s ban on waste imports, the US was only recycling 10 percent of its garbage. Now, without the option to send its trash to China, the country needs to recycle at least 35 percent of its own garbage.  In addition, contamination in the US is high, since recyclables are often dumped into one bin instead of being multi-streamed or separated from the source.

On the one hand, this situation is an excellent chance for the countries to advance their waste sorting techniques and increase environmental awareness among its people regarding waste.

On the other hand, those countries, including China, needs to find new and more healthy solutions for waste sorting as it is very unhealthy and dangerous for humans to sort contaminated waste – workers need to sort sharp objects, such as broken glass, nails, sharp metal, and wood shards, industrial and household chemicals, motor oil, mercury-containing thermometers, solvents and batteries, dead and rotting animals such as squirrels, cats and dogs that climbed into containers looking for food and got stuck, and other biohazards, such as rotting food waste, used diapers, animal feces and disease-causing pathogens and so on and so on.

Therefore, to tackle these issues, lots of companies and researchers from all over the world are developing AI-assisted robotic technology that can work with humans in processing plants and improve quality control.

The way these robots work is simple. Guided by cameras and computer systems trained to recognize specific objects, the robot’s arms glide over moving conveyor belts until they reach their target. Oversized tongs or fingers with sensors that are attached to the arms snag cans, glass, plastic containers and other recyclable items out of the rubbish and place them into nearby bins. With this robotic technology, humans just need to control the machines behind the barriers as they sort contaminated waste, assisted by AI.

Denver-based AMP Robotics is one of the companies in the field. It has developed software – an AMP Neuron platform that uses computer vision and machine learning – so robots can recognize different colors, textures, shapes, sizes and patterns, distinguishing the characteristics of different materials.

“Quality standards are getting stricter – that’s why companies and researchers are working on high tech solutions,” says AMP Robotics CEO Mantaya Horowitz.

CleanRobotics is another US-based company. The company has built an autonomous system, called TrashBot, that makes recycling affordable for businesses and profitable for recycling plants. Using robotics, computer vision, and artificial intelligence they detect and separate landfill waste from recyclables while gathering useful data for recyclers, reducing waste hauling costs for businesses, and replacing expensive waste receptacles.

Founded in Helsinki, Finland, ZenRobotics is another strong player in the market. The company’s main product is ZenRobotics Recycler, a waste sorting system that separates raw materials from waste. ZenRobotics technology has been tested in construction and demolition waste sorting, where it’s achieved rates of 2,000 picks per hour per gripper and purity rates of 98 percent in separated streams. The technology has demonstrated its capacity to separate bulky items weighing up to 30 kilograms.

A relatively new company in the field is Canadian Waste Robotics. Waste Robotics has raised a total of USD 2.5 million in funding over 3 rounds. Their latest funding was raised on Mar 8, 2019, from a Grant round. Founded in 2016, the company designs and delivers intelligent recycling robots to replace the increasingly expensive and rare 90,000 human pickers in North American recycling centers.

Some Chinese companies are also developing their AI-powered sorting robotics. AUBO Robotics is one of the examples. The company manufactures light-weight collaborative robots. The company was founded by several experts in the robotics field, with R&D centers located at Beijing China and Knoxville TN, US. The company has raised a total of USD 9 million in funding in 1 round. This was a Series A round raised on Nov 9, 2017.

Along with these developments in the industry, the global robotics market is expected to cross USD 64 billion by 2026. Therefore, there seems to be huge room for the waste sorting robotics industry to grow further. New competitors might even find themselves making a profit in emerging markets by waste sorting.

To sum up, in light of the environmental and human health impact of the current global waste management systems, the waste sorting robotics industry seems to be what the world needs – accompanied with reduced consumption in the developed world!

Editor: Luke Sheehan
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