Besides robots and vision systems, artificial intelligence is being employed to help with recycling. An article in Forbes from April 4, 2017, noted that in 2011, Finnish company ZenRobotics came up with a system that was “a combination of computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence to run synchronized robotic arms to sort and pick recycled materials from moving conveyor belts.”
Others mentioned in Forbes include Sadako Technologies in Spain with its “AI-infused” garbage sorting systems. “Clarke, a recycling robot that uses AI to identify a wide variety of food and beverage cartons so it can grab and separate them from the rest of the recycling” is a prototype that resulted from “a collaboration by the Carton Council and two Denver-based companies, AMP Robotics and Alpine Waste & Recycling.”
In February, I wrote about Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) “In-Flight” sorting technology that can sort plastics by type. A BHS system was installed in CarbonLite’s new Lehigh Valley, PA, facility and will create 80 million pounds of rPET pellets annually.
Of course, there’s the problem of differentiating PVC from PET. One solution is X-ray technology (XRF and XRD), which allows users to “see through” the two plastics at the “elemental level” and sort them. Those methods can also be used to detect additives, such as chlorine and bromine. Brominated flame retardants have become a big no-no, and plastics containing these additives cannot be returned to the re-processing stream for reuse in the food and beverage and medical markets.
Speaking of which, recyclers are clamoring for markets for recycled plastics. Remember the problem of virgin resins being cheaper than recycled resins? Well, it still exists, and the higher the cost to recycle certain types of plastics, the less inclined manufacturers are to use recycled plastics in their products. Mandating specific percentages of recycled content in products through legislation won’t work, and could make things worse. This is a free market economy, after all.
I’m starting to rethink my original conclusion that recycling is a really great idea. More and more, I’m inclined to believe that given the massive problem that plastic waste in the environment has become, waste-to-energy (WTE) is perhaps the best way to deal with this in a large-scale, long-term way. Collection of floating waste could be done by large barges, which would then bring the whole mess to a WTE facility that would then provide electricity to the citizens of countries that need it. Perhaps that’s the best way to deal with the elephant in the room.
Image courtesy Alexandr/Adobe Stock.