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Amp Cortex Robotic Sorter. (Image credit Amp Robotics)

 

Let’s face it, we live in a world of ‘plastic Armageddon’ where an estimated 300-million tons of it are produced each year according to the World Watch Institute, and a lot of it is buried in landfills or finds its way to the oceans, culminating in giant floating islands. Surely recycling must be a surefire solution to help curb this environmental scourge but we’d be wrong, as a 2012 report from the EPA states that only about 14% out of those many tons are recycled globally, meaning we’ve dropped the ball in our efforts to go green at least on the plastic side of things.

 

 

That’s ok though, as robots seem more than willing to pick up that ball and help save us from ourselves as some municipal waste facilities are turning towards incorporating mechanical recyclers to help curb our plastic problem. Case in point- Denver-based AMP Robotics (Autonomous Manipulation and Perception) has recently teamed up with the Carton Council, AMP Robotics, and Colorado-based Alpine Waste & Recycling to make recycling more efficient.

 

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(Image credit AMP Robotics)

 

The new pilot program teaches robots, such as AMP’s Cortex (pictured above) how to recycle with more gusto and intelligence by outfitting decades-old sorting machines with ‘eyes’ and giving them an AI brain. According to the AMP press release, “This new robotic system, AMP’s Cortex, learns to identify and then grab food and beverage cartons using the latest technology in robotics and artificial intelligence.”

 

The robot is outfitted with specially designed grips to pick up and separate various-sized food and beverage cartons at super-human speed, which is then sold to different institutions who turn them into new products and building materials. What’s more, what the robot learns as it goes can then be ported over to other recycling facilities and injected into their robotic platforms without starting from square one, and it doesn’t end with paper or plastic refuse, it can be taught to separate just about anything, including e-waste.

 

The platform works by using a visible-light camera system to spot the material to be separated passing below on a moving conveyor and then uses its suction cup appendage to grab said material and separate it from the rest of the refuse. It can sort at a rate of 60 items per minute with an accuracy of 90%, far faster than the average human can.

 

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Sadako Wall-B sorting robot. (Image credit Sadako Technologies)

 

AMP’s Cortex isn’t the only trash-sorting robot deployed to recycling centers as Sadako Technologies installed a similar robot, known as Wall-B at Barcelona’s Ecoparc 4 Waste Treatment Centre back in 2015. In this case, the robot’s primary function is to separate valuable materials from common waste and uses a similar system like Cortex, relying on computer vision and AI to learn what materials need to be separated while a robotic arm plucks it out of a lineup of trash moving on a conveyor belt underneath.

 

 

Of course, separating plastics is a great start, all plastics aren’t the same. We will still end up with unrecyclable plastics (those with polycarbonates) squeezed into already full landfills or chucked into the world’s oceans releasing brain-altering BPAs as they slowly decompose.

 

There is hope on that front as well, as scientists are developing ways to keep those BPAs at bay (by not being released during decomposition) using a type of thermoplastic polymers known as polysulfones. These new polymers are as tough as those plastics with BPA, but they won’t leach the chemical through high heat or degradation.

 

Regardless, these new developments are not a stopgap solution or a quick fix in ridding ourselves of the plastic menace but that being said, it is a promising start in a long-game endeavor that may indeed help us sometime in the future.

 

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