Picking Up the Pieces

Reading time
2 min read
Two recycling robots working

Sorting data into the right categories is AI's bread-and-butter task. Now the technology is being used to sort recyclables into the right bins.

What’s new: Single Stream Recyclers of Sarasota, Florida, recently increased its fleet of AI-equipped sorters from six to 14. That's the largest deployment of recycling robots in the U.S. and possibly the world, according to The Robot Report.

Bot master: Single Stream uses sorters built by AMP Robotics, which combines proprietary deep learning software with off-the-shelf robotics. Its machines use suction-tipped appendages to sort 80 pieces of waste a minute — twice as fast as the average for humans, the company claims — and work much longer hours. The robots are in use in the U.S., Canada, and Japan.

How it works: AMP trained its model on photos of waste material. It learned to distinguish not only newspapers from milk cartons, but also various classes of plastics and metals. The system reportedly achieves high accuracy in spite of discards that are often battered, dented, crumpled, and dirty.

Behind the news: Recycling makes economic sense if producing goods from old materials is less expensive than making them afresh. Using humans to sort recyclables is expensive in Western countries, and robots can reduce the cost. An alternative is to ship waste to places like China, but such relationships are susceptible to geopolitical turmoil — not to mention the greenhouse gases emitted shipping waste across the ocean.

Why it matters: The average American produces nearly four and a half pounds of trash daily. Globally, daily waste tops 3.5 billion tons. Much of this doesn’t degrade and winds up in oceans or seeping into the food supply. More efficient recycling keeps more waste out of the environment and conserves resources for other uses.

We’re thinking: The cost-benefit ratio of recycling is hotly debated and difficult to calculate. Of course, robots aren’t cheap — AMP, a private company, doesn’t publicize its prices or sales — but they clearly have potential to cut immediate costs. Meanwhile, recycling itself saves the external costs of environmental degradation. AMP’s success suggests that recycling plants, at least, are finding the tradeoff worthwhile.


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