Recycling’s Robotic Frontier

AMP Robotics

To understand the challenges at the root of municipal recycling programs, check out a video clip from the TV satire “Portlandia.”

In a segment called “Which bin does it go in?” a character played by Fred Armesin says, “Now there is a bin for everything!” The video shows bins for sorting cardboard and paper (blue); plastic, aluminum and glass (black); then descends into the absurd. Orange bins for coffee cup sleeves. Brown bins for stir straws. Periwinkle bins for the cups. Fuchsia bins for coffee cup lids, unless they have lipstick on them. Those, of course, go into the rose-colored bins. Et cetera, et cetera. (And you’ve gotta crack up at what comes out!)

The video gets some laughs out the confusion people face when sorting recyclables, but it also highlights a big problem: Without effective sorting, the commodities that are generated by municipal programs have less — and sometimes little to no — market value due to cross-contamination.

While optical sorting machinery has long been in use to separate materials, it is far from perfect. Much of the sorting is often done by workers who stand along a conveyor belt and pick out undesirable items like plastic bags. The work is dirty, dangerous, and even more challenging due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even in the best of times, the jobs can be hard to fill.

The challenges are reflected in recycling rates. In Dutchess County, 44.1 percent of the 381,500 tons of municipal solid waste generated in 2019 was recycled, according to the county’s annual report. That’s well below the goal of 54.6 percent Dutchess established when it crafted its solid waste management plan in 2013.

The Power of Artificial Intelligence

Now some recyclers are considering technologies more familiar to science fiction fans in order to improve the sorting process.

“Companies like AMP Robotics have introduced robots with artificial intelligence systems that enable the sorting and production of high-quality commodity bales of paper and plastics, while adding safeguards against contamination,” said Bridget Croke, a managing director at the investment firm Closed Loop Partners, during a recent Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on the challenges facing the recycling industry.

Based in Colorado, AMP combines optical sorting, robotics, and machine learning to create systems that can identify and then sort items mechanically at high speed and with higher accuracy than traditional machinery.

The company says the system’s digital brain uses computer vision to identify not just material types such as plastics or metal, but also colors, textures, shapes, sizes, patterns, and even the features of brand labels. The decisions made by one AMP system can be transmitted to the cloud, where they can be compared with those of other AMP systems in order to improve sorting efficiency. In this way, the system is constantly training itself.

“[Artificial Intelligence] is very much a tool that elevates optical sorters and provides a way to sort more specifically. A.I. complements traditional optical sorters in that it allows it to select materials in a more refined way,” Mark Baybutt, AMP’s vice president of product, told Recycling Today.

The company says its systems can be installed within existing machinery at municipal and private materials recovery facilities.

Earlier this year, AMP announced its systems had sorted 1 billion individual recyclable items from billions of other materials in a 12-month period ending March 31. The company has received financial backing from brand-name investors, such as Sequoia Capital and Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“A.I. complements traditional optical sorters in that it allows it to select materials in a more refined way.”

Mark Baybutt, AMP’s vice president of product

The potential for increased efficiency is considerable. For instance, as much as 85 percent of Dutchess County’s single-stream recyclable material — plastics, metals, cardboard, and paper — is sorted at one privately-owned materials recovery facility in Beacon, according to the county’s resource recovery agency.

AMP spokeswoman Carling Spelhaug confirmed to Viewfinder that the company “does have a presence in New York State.” However, it is unable to disclose which facilities have installed the systems due to nondisclosure agreements that protect commercially sensitive pricing and application details.

AMP vice present Chris Wirth told TIME that inquiries from potential customers increased at least fivefold from March to June of 2020 and that 35 facilities used the company’s technologies in 2019.

Bioplastics as a Climate Solution

Abaca Mask

Plastic isn’t just a pollution problem or a health problem — it’s also a climate change problem.

The impacts of plastic waste on oceans and shorelines are have been devastating. And a 2019 study by the University of Newcastle in Australia found that humans are ingesting the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week. However, because virtually every step of plastic production requires fossil fuels, the impact plastic makes on global greenhouse gasses is arguably most pressing.

That’s because overproduction from the fracking boom and the pandemic’s economic slowdown have driven crude oil prices to historic lows. In search of new profits, major fossil fuel companies are investing in plastic production, according to Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

A recent study led by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and a number of other environmental organizations warned that if these and other companies achieve their planned plastic production goals by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year. That’s the same impact you would get from building 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants, the study said.

Judith Enck, a former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency and a founder of Beyond Plastics, told Columbia’s Earth Institute that the issue is particularly urgent because the permit review for many of the new plastic production facilities in the U.S. has already begun. “If even a quarter of these … facilities are built,” Enck said, “it’s locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from.”

Finding Alternatives in Nature

Fortunately, there is another way.

Bio-based plastics are made from renewable, naturally occurring feedstocks such as corn, cassava, sugar beet, or sugar cane.

Bioplastic bottle made from corn (Photo: totophotos on iStock)

Some types are biodegradable. And since they don’t rely on oil or gas as a primary ingredient, they result in much lower levels of carbon emissions. Indeed, the nonprofit group Project Drawdown (which in 2017 published the New York Times bestseller, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming) lists bioplastics as one of the most effective solutions to reversing global warming.

“What affords plastics their malleability are chainlike polymers, comprised of many atoms or molecules bound to one another,” Drawdown writes. “Cellulose, the most abundant organic material on earth, is a polymer in the cell walls of plants. Chitin is another abundant polymer, found in the shells and exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. Potatoes, sugarcane, tree bark, algae, and shrimp all contain natural polymers that can be converted to plastic.”

Will Bioplastics Take Off?

Whether bioplastics can gain a meaningful share of the market remains to be seen. The coronavirus pandemic has hurt the bottom lines of plastics companies, which recently requested $1 billion federal bailout to help in recycling during the public-health crisis. Yet the Covid-19 outbreak has also slowed the growth of plastic alternatives.

Public concerns about the spread of the virus have reinvigorated the use of single-use plastic items, raising concerns that old habits will stick for years to come. During a recent Senate committee hearing on recycling challenges, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) said the virus “has reminded us that the critical role that single-use plastics do play in protecting public health.”

Barrasso’s statement overlooks the overwhelming negative health and climate impacts of single-use plastics — and ignores the potential benefits bioplastics would provide.

Drawdown estimates that if bioplastics captured 12 percent of the market by 2050, nearly 1 gigaton of carbon emissions would be avoided. If that figure increases to 46 percent of the market, 3.8 gigatons of emissions would be saved.

There’s even a promising new bioplastic solution for disposable face masks. Abaca, a fiber from a relative of the banana tree, is often used in teabags and monetary bills — it’s as durable as polyester but can decompose within two months. The pandemic may be creating new challenges, but it may open up new climate solutions, too.

Tiny Bubbles


A canal in Amsterdam is the site of an experimental initiative that could provide a simple yet innovative solution for ending the growing proliferation of harmful plastic in the world’s oceans. A garbage truck’s worth of this waste enters the seas each minute, with some 80% of this debris flowing forth from rivers and streams.

GIF: The Great Bubble Barrier
GIF: The Great Bubble Barrier

To the potential rescue comes the Great Bubble Barrier, conceived by three women in the Netherlands. In essence, it’s a perforated tube spanning the bottom of Amsterdam’s Westerdok Canal. A “curtain” of bubbles created by compressed air pumped through the tube floats plastic to the surface. The tube is angled to direct debris to one side of the canal, where it’s collected in a rubbish platform instead of making its eventual way into the North Sea.

Amersterdam Visual Overview (Graphic: The Great Bubble Barrier)
Amersterdam Visual Overview (Graphic: The Great Bubble Barrier)

The beauty of the Great Bubble Barrier is that it’s a barrier in name only: it poses no restrictions to marine life or shipping. Something else in its favor: It captures much smaller pieces of plastic (as tiny as 1 millimeter) compared to traditional techniques. And it works 24/7.

This pilot project will continue through 2021. If successful, developers of the Great Bubble Barrier hope to introduce it in waterways worldwide.

Bye-Bye Plastic Bags

Americans use more than 100 billion plastic bags a year, with nearly a fifth of them carted out of stores and restaurants by New Yorkers. According to our partners at American Rivers, three times more of these bags end up littering our nation’s forests and waterways than get recycled. By weight, this pollution equals the heft of 176 blue whales!

Beginning March 1, these numbers should decline greatly as New York’s plastic bag ban goes into effect. This is not only good news for cutting down on litter: It’s a boon to our environment. Depending on thickness, plastic bags take anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill, and all that time they’re leaching chemicals into the ground. Meanwhile, bags burned in incinerators release toxic gases like dioxins and mercury.

But how will this impact you directly? A study released last year by biologists at Canada’s University of Victoria concluded that Americans ingest somewhere between 39,000 and 52,000 microplastic particles a year from foods. That works out to consuming one credit card a week. The total of microplastic particles ingested climbed upwards of 70,000 once you factor in how much we inhale.

In other words, forgoing plastic bags and toting a cloth carry-all to the store will do us all a world of good.