Transformers, not Terminators; Let’s Talk Recreating the Recycling Market
Legend has it that the glasses from the 70’s are probably still in your nearby landfills, just like the rest of the trash that can’t be recycled or incinerated. The world’s recycling system is rapidly collapsing due to the difficulties of accurately separating different materials, thus deteriorating the value of the recycled goods due to contamination.
For decades, U.S. and European recyclers knew the inefficiencies of their businesses, but lacked a feasible solution to fix it. Instead, they sent their problems elsewhere: to Asia. The markets in China had a huge need for raw commodities and were willing to accept low quality materials. Unfortunately, after salvaging the value, the materials have contaminated the land and the water. As a result of disregarding the growing issue, China and a number of countries in Asia finally banned the import of most plastics as of 2018. At that time, China handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste.
This ban has caused U.S recyclers to send the majority of their recyclables to landfills and incinerators. Even worse, many are not accepting curbside recyclables at all. Tens of millions of tons of garbage a day is slowly burying the cities of America.
This issue comes down to two main problems. The first is consumer confusion on correct recycling protocol, as many are unaware of how to correctly sort their plastic, paper, and aluminum. The second problem lies in recycling centers where there is trouble sorting the truckloads of recycling waste from the cities. How can we fix this?
The solution: Robots!
Currently, entrepreneurs are developing robots to solve both problems. The first problem (consumer confusion) is being solved by developing a built-in camera and sensor into trash bins to automatically sort the trash into the correct internal bin. As recycling regulations change, the machines can automatically update. The second problem (recycling center sorting) is being solved by robots that have built-in existing infrastructure that uses artificial intelligence to identify each material and automatically sorts it.
Most recycling facilities are currently using equipment from the mining industry that can help identify materials by density or shape, which is imprecise. For example, a bundle of paper might end up including plastic bottles or aluminum cans. To make it more accurate, the facility hired workers who have to manually separate them to prevent contamination. However, the issue with this solution is that the facilities are always understaffed due to the unappealing nature of the job. Recycling workers are more than twice as likely to be injured on the job than regular workers and it has high fatality rates.
AMP is a company that just recently closed a Series B round and was backed by Sequoia and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners. They have come up with a solution to use their robots. These robots have the ability to sort 80 items per minute, almost twice as much as the average human worker, and are more accurate. The software that runs the robots uses machine learning to recognize the objects. As the company scales and gathers more data, the robots will eventually be faster, cheaper, and can be updated in response to new regulations or opportunities for new material streams.
With this solution, recycling facilities can now turn recycling into a profitable enterprise with high value materials obtained through more accurate sorting. In some cases, the robots are able to double or triple the value of material due to its quality. Each year, approximately 90 million tons of extremely useful recyclable products are thrown away and sent to landfills. In addition, the use of robots reduces the health hazards that human workers have to face in recycling plants every day and facilities can operate overnight, eliminating the need for workers to take second or third shifts. This, also, opens up opportunities in the electronic and construction waste industries.
List of companies:
- AMP Robotics
- Everest Labs
The current cons: facilities need to receive enough materials to sell to justify the cost, as well as the need for a constant energy source to power these robots.
The ultimate goal is to recreate a recycling market that can be assured with quality and remain profitable.
Javin Chan, Winter Investment Intern
Roboticstomorrow.com, have reported that recycling workers had the fifth-highest fatality rate compared to dozens of jobs in 2014. That year, its fatality rate was 20.8 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)
An auction house for lost goods in the landfill, where buying collectibles is becoming a trend and an investment, as trash robots get more advanced and are soon able to sort our growing landfills. We can promote the circular economy and develop an additional revenue stream for the recycling facilities. For example: Unusual Antique Eyeglasses sold for $5,000.
Zero Waste: Simple Life Hacks to Drastically Reduce Your Trash, by Shia Su is an accessible zero-waste lifestyle guide for beginners.
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