AI robots are becoming established in the recycling industry, with continued growth expected in the use of this technology. In this article, we’ll outline how the evolution of computer vision used in waste sorting alongside recycling initiatives is helping to pave the way towards a truly circular economy in 2023 and beyond.

What is a Circular Economy?

In our current economy we create items from the earth and then throw them away after use as waste, which is essentially a linear process. The waste is destroyed through incineration, landfills, and other environmentally negative processes.

The circular economy is based on three key ideals that need to be achieved together. The first principle is to eliminate pollution and waste.  Second is to circulate products and materials at their absolute highest value and the third is that a circular economy seeks to regenerate nature.

The reference to “highest value” is interesting as one of the key barriers to circularity through recycling is where the cost of sorting a material outweighs the value for which the sorted material can be sold.  A way to reduce the cost of sorting is the use of automation, via computer vision with robotic sorting, known as AI-powered waste robots.

What AI Robots in MRFs mean for a circular economy

Since their acceptance of the need for recycling in the 1960s, many municipalities and councils in the United Kingdom and Europe have implemented various recycling initiatives. Once materials are collected from homes or recycling points, the waste is sorted through two methods: manual waste sorting by humans and automated recycling, including the use of robots at a Materials Recovery facility or MRF.  Waste robots have an increasingly important role to play in the waste sorting process and the revolution of the waste management industry.

Using AI-powered robots in the waste sorting process means better productivity, partly due to the ability of robots to operate 24/7, without fluctuating productivity throughout this time or needing breaks in the same way a human does, but also due to the collection of real-time data, which aids decision making. The data collected also brings 100% sampling of waste picked, demonstrating purity which is important to obtain the best-selling price possible.

Materials with higher purity demand better prices, which directly supports the profitability of waste sorting and the companies who provide it.  The computer vision used with Recycleye’s AI-powered robots can also detect between 30 material types, including paper, plastic and aluminium.  AI robots and computer vision for waste sorting support a circular economy by providing the means to sort high-quality materials for recycling, ensuring profitability and reducing tension on the environment.

What have AI Robots already achieved?

Computer vision in AI robots for waste management has grown by leaps and bounds over just a few years.  AI robots specifically designed for MRFs are now available as smaller, lighter alternatives than previous options.  Using Recycleye Robotics, waste management companies have seen tangible benefits, such as increases of target material picked of between 10% and 12% and with purity levels of up to 99%.  Perhaps one of the most significant steps forward is the ability to use computer vision technology that is now able to sort materials that were previously impossible, such as black plastics and even differentiating food-grade plastic from non-food-grade plastic.

Waste sorting AI-powered robots such as Recycleye Robotics pick waste in a way that’s consistently more accurate than humans, using powerful AI, and can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Recycleye Robotics uses an efficient 6-axis design with a rapid pick-rotate-and-shoot operation, which is specifically designed to work with the type of dry, mixed recyclables found in household waste.  Such waste robots can be installed in a MRF by a small team over a couple of days, without the need for heavy equipment, saving time and money.

What’s Coming in 2023: A New Deposit Return Scheme

Scotland is set to be the first nation in the UK to implement a deposit return scheme. Originally the scheme was set to go live mid-2022 however due to restrictions as a result of the pandemic, the scheme will start mid-August 2023.

Through the scheme, consumers will pay a 20p deposit on all bottles, with the initial deposit repaid when the consumer returns the bottle. The scheme roll-out encourages businesses to register as a voluntary return point to support this initiative.

The scheme aims to provide a number of solutions to the ever-growing issue of plastic bottles and their effect on the environment. The project is also predicted to save £62 million a year by tackling the indirect impacts of litter and is expected to increase the purity of the plastics sold for recycling after sorting, helping to support the circular economy.

Other UK home nations are also looking to implement this scheme; Wales and England are due to launch their own Deposit Return Schemes in 2024.

Can we Achieve a Circular Economy?

The application of artificial intelligence is probably one of the most important developments in the history of waste management, but there is still a lot to look forward to.  As the waste industry’s adoption of computer vision, machine learning and robotics grows, we’ll see these innovative solutions streamline and accelerate the sorting process, leading to both financial and environmental benefits.  Most importantly, AI-powered waste sorting robots will help us to work towards the creation of a truly circular economy.

At Recycleye, we’re proud of our proven technology, Recycleye Vision and Recycleye Robotics, that is helping to optimise picking and sorting in a growing number of sites across Europe and the US.  To learn more about the possibilities, contact our team now at hello@recycleye.com or book a free audit today.