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.

Time to Update the Bottle Bill



That’s the percentage of glass containers manufactured in the United States that ends up in landfills every year.

Despite the fact that glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss of purity, 53.1 percent of the beer and soft drink bottles; wine and liquor bottles; and bottles and jars for food and juices, cosmetics, and other products were dumped into landfills in 2017, according to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency data.

That’s a lot of broken glass — 4.7 million tons of it, according to the EPA.

Broken Glass Bottles (Photo: Anders Sandberg on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

New York’s Proposed Expansion of the Bottle Bill

In New York, state leaders are envisioning a future with far lower levels of wasted glass. And they are looking to do it by enhancing a familiar tool: the bottle deposit.

New York is one of 10 states with so-called bottle bills that add a small, cash deposit to the sale of certain types of beverages. The others are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Vermont, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

New York’s bill was enacted in 1982 and amended in 1983, 1992, and 2009. It adds a 5 cent deposit to sales of bottled beverages: carbonated water, energy drinks, juice, soft drinks, and tea; soda water; beer and other malt beverages; mineral water; wine and wine coolers; and any water that doesn’t contain sugar.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed adding sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable beverages and ready-to-drink teas and coffee to the list. And state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would also include wine, liquor, cider, and distilled spirits.

Why Municipally-Recycled Glass is Hard to Get Rid Of

One of the goals of the proposals is to keep as much glass out of municipal recycling systems as possible. Glass that comes out of the municipal materials recovery facilities (or MRFs) tends to be of much lower quality than the glass that is collected through redemption programs at grocery stores and other retail outlets. That’s because the mechanical behemoths that are used to separate glass, plastic, newspaper and cardboard are not foolproof.

“When glass makes its way through the recycling system, it gets crushed and breaks down,” said Angelina Peone, Recycling Coordinator for the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency. “In order to capture that, we have to capture these small pieces. So if you put anything in your recycling bin that is smaller than a tennis ball, it is going to get corralled with the crushed glass and contaminate the purity of the glass. We see things like bottle caps, batteries, small pill bottles — anything smaller than a tennis ball is essentially going to contaminate the glass.”

Recycling (Photo: Alan Levine on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

The resulting product is often referred to MRF glass, or “murf” glass. Because of its low purity, MRF glass “is extremely hard to get rid of,” UCRRA Executive Director Tim Rose said. A survey by the Northeast Recycling Council found that 38 percent of MRF glass ends up in landfills in the Northeast.

Is the Impact Worth It? We Think So

In November 2019, the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology published a study assessing the impacts if just wine and liquor bottles were added to the bottle bill. The study estimated that such a change would impact 4,500 businesses and approximately 488 million containers in New York. Recycling rates of these containers, the study found, would increase by 65 percent.

Of course, that recovery would come with a cost. The study suggested that expansion would be costly for the wine and liquor industry, which would have to implement new collection procedures. New deposit initiators and dealers would experience approximately $40 million in direct costs, including $36 million in new labor costs.

“Taking responsibility for our waste is a critical step toward achieving a cleaner and greener Hudson Valley.”

Andy Bicking, Scenic Hudson’s Director of Public Policy.

Not surprisingly, the bill is opposed by the wine and liquor industry and supported by the recycling industry and some non-industry stakeholders. In a joint statement, more than 50 recycling organizations and environmental groups — including Scenic Hudson — noted that it’s been more than decade since the last amendment to the bottle bill.

“Taking responsibility for our waste is a critical step toward achieving a cleaner and greener Hudson Valley,” says Andy Bicking, Scenic Hudson’s Director of Public Policy.

He adds, “The bottle bill is a proven strategy that works for New York by incentivizing the return and redemption of empty containers and keeping them out of our river, parks and playing fields. The time has come to take the next step and expand the state’s bottle redemption law.”