Advances in artificial intelligence are being deployed in recycling facilities across the country to help increase solid waste recycling. 

These AI driven innovations are being used to tackle some of the biggest challenges in recycling today, such as a shortage of workers and rising costs, as well as material contamination. 

Using this technology in conjunction with human workers, recyclers hope to jump start languishing recycling rates.

How AI can rescue recycling

At large recycling facilities today, waste moves down conveyor belts where traditionally workers would sort recyclable materials.  The average worker can sort 50 to 80 pieces per minute, according to a November Wall Street Journal report on AI.  The problem is the shrinking number of workers available to do the job.  AI robots working in their place can reliably pick up 80 pieces per minute.  The robots use arms and suction cups to sort through bottles and cartons, sorting recyclable materials faster and more safely than humans, and taking up about the same footprint as a human worker.   

Recyclers are also now utilizing AI-operated optical sorters, which can sort up to 1,000 pieces per minute.  The optical systems use sensors and lights to identify shapes, sizes and even brands of material to detect what is recyclable.  When the material is identified, strong blasts of compressed air are used to blow the material into the proper bin for processing.  According to the Journal report, recycling facilities of all sizes are starting to put this technology in place with the goal of retrieving more recyclables from the waste stream.  Robots will help improve the purity of the materials, a spokesperson for AMP Robotics, a lead producer of sorting robots, said earlier this year.  He explained in an Axios article that robotic sorters can “squeeze more value out of the stream.”

AI can also gather valuable data about what is in the waste stream. This ability could help address the increase in hard-to-recycle plastic waste which can be better identified and sorted with AI.  The data collected could also be used to work with manufacturers.  Armed with this information, recyclers could possibly get manufacturers to help recover recycling costs or improve packaging designs for greater material recovery.  Finally, this valuable data can help address contamination in the waste stream.          

Contamination in recycling streams has been a long-standing issue impeding recycling rates.  Contamination occurs when some material that is not recyclable gets mixed in with the recyclable materials. These contaminants slow down the recycling process and increase operating costs. Common contaminants in recycling programs are plastic bags and things that tangle in machinery like light strands or hoses.   According to the online newsletter Waste 360, AI and camera technology are now being used on trucks by companies picking up recyclables.  The truck-mounted camera can photograph and video material being hauled.  The artificial intelligence is then able to flag material considered a contaminant.  In this way, recycling companies can identify the source of the contamination and address the problem with the entity responsible for the contamination.  By addressing the contamination at its source, the hope is that over time it will be diminished, or the cost covered by the responsible party.      

Truck-mounted cameras with AI systems can address other issues for recyclers as well.  According to WasteVision AI, a company providing this technology, haulers also can see safety and efficiency benefits with these applications.  The same camera system doing the AI monitoring can be used for driver assistance, telematics solutions, and to capture events or crashes for insurance purposes.    

AI-driven advances in scrap metal recycling

These AI advances are making their way into the scrap metal recycling industry.  Scrap metal recyclers have already employed technology to increase their efficiency.  For decades, X-ray analyzers that can detect metals and alloys have been available to streamline sorting operations.  The AMP Robotics website states that its technology can be used for metals such as aluminum, aerosol cans, nonferrous food containers and foil.   One Finnish company, ZenRobotics, in 2014 unveiled a sorting system using AI and sensor technology.  According to the company, its product can sort copper, brass, stainless steel, and aluminum, and is used in some European scrap metal recycling facilities.

Outlook for AI in recycling

According to industry reports, the forecast is bright for AI-driven technologies to improve and come down in price so their use can be more widespread and cost effective in the recycling industry.  While the current price tag for an AI optical sorting system can be as high as $300,000, more companies are leasing the equipment to cut down on up-front costs.  Robotics companies predict that maintenance and upgrades of the equipment should decrease in the future as the technology is fine tuned.  Finally, AI will continue to improve its ability to sort recyclable materials over time through deep machine learning, which is the hallmark of its value.   

About ScrapWare CorporationSince 1989, Rockville, Maryland-based ScrapWare Corporation has been the software of choice for the recycling industry. Its ease of installation and simplicity saves users time and money while helping them achieve compliance and maintain accurate business insights. With state-of-the-art functionality that‘s tailored to each organization’s unique requirements, ScrapWare is an advanced dynamic software solution that alleviates the most pressing recycling industry worries. For more information, please call (301) 517-8500 or visit