AI: One Tool in the Recyclers’ Toolbox

Nov 30, 2023, 15:53 PM
Content author:
Arnulfo Moreno
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Recycled materials are an essential part of the global economy thanks, in large part, to significant advancements in technologies and processes. While artificial intelligence (AI) is a great example of innovation within the industry, the recent Wall Street Journal commentary “Can AI Rescue Recycling?” unfortunately fails to capture the dynamic nature of the recycled materials industry, which is a thriving engine of economic growth, and is ahead of the curve in driving solutions. Simply put, the recycled materials industry does not need to be rescued.

AI paired with robotics has helped some facilities become more efficient. These machines use AI to make autonomous decisions about what materials to sort and robotic arms to remove selected items from the conveyor belt. Robotic sorters are meant to work alongside optical sorters; robotic sorters complement optical sorters with the quality control in which many products are identified, and several types of products can be sorted at once. Currently, optical sorters are estimated to sort up to 1,000 pieces a minute and AI-driven robots sort about 80 pieces — people generally sort around 50 to 80 pieces a minute.

“Our essential industry has combined technological advancements, research, and a skilled workforce to help facilities process and collect difficult-to-recycle materials, which provide critical resources to create the everyday items and essential infrastructure people depend on,” said ISRI President Robin Wiener.

The two main advantages these types of systems provide are safety and labor as robots don’t get tired and can eliminate sorting-line-related injuries or human fatigue; though there still is cost associated with maintaining these machines. This allows recycling facilities to run longer with lower operating expenses, but there is still the hefty initial financial investment to consider. Another advantage is that these systems are reprogrammable: If a facility’s needs or streams change, an operator merely changes the settings instead of buying an entirely new piece of equipment.

It’s not just AI and robotics that’s driving the industry forward. Developing crucial tools like the ISRI Fiber Recycling Readiness Tool provide brands, packaging developers and other stakeholders with clear guidance on whether their packaging will successfully pass through the current recycling infrastructure. It helps brands use Design for Recycling® principles, provides solutions to partners across the supply chain and increases the flow of recycled materials.

Researching and investing in the recycled materials industry — including advancements like robotics, AI, Design for Recycling, readiness tools — has a major impact on the economy. ISRI commissioned an Economic Impact Study, highlighting significant benefits of the for-profit recycling sector. The study showed the industry generates nearly $177 billion for the U.S. economy annually and provides more than 506,000 jobs per year.

While residential recycling is the most visible part of the U.S. recycling infrastructure, what the piece in the WSJ fails to do is make the distinction that the vast majority of recycled materials come from industrial and commercial operations with recycling rates reaching as high as 90 percent, allowing for a stable and secure manufacturing supply chain.

“We are taking the lead to increase those numbers, partnering with brands and others to ensure that products are designed for recycling,” said Wiener. “We have created sophisticated tools for consumer brands to test how compatible packaging is with the current US residential recycling system — demonstrating the industry’s commitment to finding solutions across the entire supply chain.”

Recycled materials are an essential part of the global economy thanks, in large part, to...
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