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April 27, 2016 AT 6:00 am

These Earth-Saving Robots Might Be The Future Recyclers

We covered Liam, Apples iPhone deconstructing robot earlier this year on the blog. NPR’s all tech considered has an interesting article with a rundown of other robots that might be the future of recycling. Via NPR

When trash is sorted for recycling by hand, the job can be dangerous. According to a report published last year by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health and other organizations, 17 people died between 2011 and 2013 on their jobs at recycling facilities in the United States due to unsafe working conditions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists all the hazards workers can be exposed to when sorting out waste, ranging from chemical exposure to lifting injuries. Electronic waste, in particular, exposes workers to multiple chemicals that may harm their health, including ammonia, mercury and asbestos.

According to the Apple’s recent environmental report, the company has collected nearly 90 million pounds of e-waste through its recycling programs, which is 71 percent of the total weight of the products it sold seven years earlier.

But Fortune editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt wrote that Liam the robot wouldn’t scale up because Apple sold more than 230 million iPhones last year. He writes:

“One Liam is not going to make much of a dent in the toxic mountain of electronics waste Apple has helped create.”
While Apple told Mashable’s Kelly that no other company it knows of is disassembling technology products in this way, there are many interesting “recycling robots” like Liam out there, although most are still just prototypes — except for ZenRobotics, a company from Finland.

Using Smart Software To Sort Trash

The ZenRobotics Recycler utilizes artificial intelligence to identify and sort materials from mixed waste. Show samples of materials to the system, and the software will learn what to do with it. According to its website, the company has the “first commercially available robotic waste sorting system.” This month, it announced plans to deliver its first robots to the U.S.

Dane Campbell, a systems engineer with PLEXUS Recycling Technologies, the company that brought ZenRobotics into the United States, says robotics in the waste industry in the U.S. is not the new idea — but artificial intelligence is.

He says current machines sometimes have problems sorting out materials like plastic bags from newspapers, thus causing sorting facilities to rely on people. According to Campbell, the machines can cost up to $1 million each.

Recycling may become more expensive — a New York Times opinion article pointed out last October — as more materials are thrown into the recycling dump, sorting will take more supervision. But automation remains expensive. The falling commodity prices might also hurt the recycling business.

A U.S. startup, AMP Robotics, aims to change that by offering “scalable recycling.” The company is fairly new, and founder Matanya Horowitz says he had the idea to bring robotics to the recycling industry because conditions for recycling workers can be “dull, dirty and dangerous.” He says “recycling is ripe for this technology.”

The company sold one machine last month and is still looking to improve the system. According to Horowitz, the machine will work like those found in a food processing plant.

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