Recycling Product News Logo

Advancing the sort with robotics

Carton Council pilot project at Colorado MRF using artificial intelligence to improve separation

The Cortex (aka Clarke) is a robotic unit developed by AMP, using optical scanning and specialized grippers that allow it to differentiate and pick up material from moving belts
The Cortex (aka Clarke) is a robotic unit developed by AMP, using optical scanning and specialized grippers that allow it to differentiate and pick up material from moving belts

Company info

7373 Washington St.
Denver, CO
US, 80229

Website:
alpinewaste.com

Read more

101 Corporate Woods Parkway
Vernon Hills, IL
US, 60061

Website:
recyclecartons.com

Read more

Sorting of food and beverage cartons is a challenge for most MRFs in the recycling industry. It's a tough job that is today mostly done by human pickers who need to move fast and quickly recognize the products going past on the line before separating them from the overall waste stream.

Because of the combined nature of the material, it has been difficult to apply technology to sorting lines in most sectors of recycling. However, improvements in machine learning and artificial intelligence have led to a pilot project using cutting-edge robotics to improve the return from sorting tables.

Alpine Waste & Recycling, based in Denver, Colorado, has partnered with AMP Robotics and the Carton Council of North America to test a robotic system designed to identify the wide variety of food and beverage cartons passing by on the sorting line, and to separate them from the stream.

The flow of material in recycling makes good sense for robotics, but the complexity has kept higher levels of sorting technology out of the industry thus far, explained AMP founder Matanya Horowitz.

"We saw an opportunity to use a lot of robotics technology that has been common in manufacturing, agriculture and other areas for quite some time," Horowitz said. "We saw that this machinery hasn't made it into the recycling industry because of some technical challenges - namely, you have a tremendous variety of different materials, whether it's carton, different kinds of newspaper or plastics, and there's no consistency. All that material is folded and dirty and crunched together in different ways. It's very challenging to teach robots or other forms of machinery where one carton ends and a plastic bottle begins."

Despite those challenges, Horowitz said there was still a great opportunity to develop a new approach to sorting. That hinged on taking advantage of the growing field of machine learning - helping computerized systems educate themselves on the job.

The Pilot at Alpine Waste & Recycling
Thanks to a grant from the Carton Council, AMP developed the Cortex, a robotic unit with specialized grippers on long spider-like "arms" that allow it to pick up material from moving belts. Constructing the robot - nicknamed "Clarke" after the science-fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke - was the easy part. Educating it was another thing entirely. 

"This technology goes after all the different categories of material, the different plastics, cartons and fibre products," Horowitz said. "Rather than program in the material that we'd like the robots to be able to separate, we have a set of algorithms based on machine learning that let it actually learn from experience. So, what we do is show it thousands of examples of bottles, cans and cartons, and it begins to learn what distinguishes all of them."

Using an optical scanning system, Clarke can begin to distinguish items based on various characteristics; a soda company logo, for example, would likely be found on number one plastics, and the robot will then treat the item bearing that logo in that manner, learning with each piece of material it handles. 

"The result is that it uses much the same information as you or I might use if we were separating out these things by hand. Pretty much anything that a person can visually distinguish, the robot can distinguish," Horowitz explained. "But, while the robot may be only separating out cartons in one use, the vision system still sees all the material, gathers that information and learns from the entire waste stream."

Alpine and AMP started their pilot project in early 2016. Clarke is the result of extensive testing and was installed in December after numerous details were ironed out surrounding such issues as reducing dust problems - challenging in any MRF - and how best to pick out cartons from the waste stream.

"There were a lot of little details that you need to get right before you have a system that is actually useful within that challenging work environment," Horowitz said.

The results so far have been encouraging, he noted, most notably in the speed that the robot can deal with passing material.

"We're excited about getting to 60 picks per minute - that makes it so that the space the robot occupies is comparable or above the status quo for existing sorters," Horowitz said. "We wanted to make sure that if you're going to put in a robot that your capacity is only going to get better."

Labour and productivity benefits
The system has proven to be solid in terms of uptime, with the capability to run long shifts with minimal maintenance and supervision, which means benefits to the MRF in terms of guaranteeing a steady flow of saleable material.

"The robot is becoming a very reliable piece of machinery, and the result of that is that facilities can count on it to show up every day for work. Many facilities have different challenges when it comes to sourcing enough people to actually work the sorting line," Horowitz noted. "This opens up different opportunities for them to redeploy existing personnel to recover other valuable material."

In addition, as the technology improves, robots like Clarke can start sorting more than one material from a line - and if multiple systems are installed, that means a significant improvement in recovery.

"On a sort line that might be 15 feet long, depending on the throughput needs you have, you might actually have several robots... they fit very nicely into existing MRFs," Horowitz said. "We require almost no change to the existing operations, so we think there's going to be a lot of appeal in these for MRFs in the future. They can basically achieve carton automation, or automation for other materials, with very little upfront hassle."

While the initial thrust of the project was to increase return on cartons, that potential to expand into other valuable products is a big part of the benefits, according to the Carton Council.

"Clarke greatly expands opportunities for the carton industry as we work to increase the efficiency of carton recycling and, ultimately, divert more cartons from landfills," said Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council of North America and vice president, environment for Tetra Pack cluster Americas. "Everything Clarke has learned about identifying cartons can be transferred to robots at other MRFs. We are excited to bring innovation to carton recycling and believe this technology has widespread implications for the recycling industry, as it can be adapted to other materials."
The value proposition of the AMP Cortex system will be attractive to MRF operators in the long term as well, Horowitz said.

"Payback time can depend a great deal on the number of shifts and other details such as throughput compared to the existing operations, but we can offer roughly less than a three-year payback, and typically less than that," he said.

In addition, AMP is offering two models - one is the direct sale approach, where the facility buys the unit outright, and the other is an operating lease through which the facility would pay a monthly fee to keep the robot operating.

"In that case, the payback period can be very, very good and they don't have to worry about the robot too much," Horowitz pointed out. "We provide a warranty, we provide continuous software updates, and the path to automation has very few hurdles at that point. Combined with the low footprint of these systems, we think we'll be opening up the capacity for more diversion within a wide number of recycling facilities." 

This article was originally published in Recycling Product News, April 2017, Volume 25, Number 3

More from Paper Recycling

Bace granted disruptive patent for IntelliBACE baler and compactor monitoring technology

This past spring, BACE, LLC announced the launch of the first-ever, fully-integrated Ecosystem for balers and compactors, powered by the IntelliBACE Platform. This August, BACE announced issuance by the United States Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) of US Patent No.: US 10,377,518, which protects the IntelliBACE Platform.

New Poll: Despite uncertainty over recycling, consumers aren't backing down

While headlines over the past few years might lead some to believe otherwise, the reality is that Americans say they are still recycling at the same rate, despite having little confidence that their recyclables actually get recycled. A national poll conducted by Mason-Dixon on behalf of the U.S. based Carton Council showed that 85% of respondents report they recycle.

An eye on optical sorting

In June, RPN had the opportunity to visit Canada's only turnkey MRF technology provider, Machinex, at the company's headquarters in Plessisville, Quebec. The company is very busy, with multiple MRF design/installation and retrofit projects across Canada currently and through 2020 - which will mark Machinex' 50th anniversary in manufacturing.

merQbiz introduces BaleVision - a solution for optimizing paper recovery

merQbiz, a solutions and analytics provider for buyers and sellers in the recovered paper (RCP) industry, introduces BaleVision, providing companies actionable insights into their RCP quality. Combining a leading quality assessment tool with comprehensive data, BaleVision helps RCP buyers maximize supplier performance and sellers earn a fair price for their product.

​Republic Services' new Texas MRF putting community education at the forefront

Republic Services is tackling head-on the crisis of overly contaminated waste streams in today's MRFs. With current residential contamination levels reaching as high as 30% or more, it is critical that processors send a clear message to the community about what is accepted in the recycling program, while also employing the most advanced, flexible technology on the market to separate this evolving stream.

2019 China Recovered Paper Market & Policy Advisory Report available

A new report from NPC Partners is now available in the U.S. and Europe through Atlanta-based paper recycling consulting firm Moore & Associates. NPC Partners is a global consultancy based in Hong Kong with offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Atlanta. NPC Partners is committed to assisting the pulp and paper industry innovate and grow based on winning strategies and new market insights.

Editor in the field: From the factory floor to the MRF – in Quebec

June 12-13, Machinex and the Carton Council of Canada invited Recycling Product News to Quebec. The first stop was a tour of the Machinex manufacturing facility and HQ in Plessisville, about 2 hours East of Montreal. Secondly, the Carton Council of Canada and Machinex hosted customers and press for a tour of Sani-Éco's MRF in Granby, Quebec where Machinex recently installed the company's latest Mach Hyspec optical sorting technology, along with a pair of SamurAI robotic sorting units for handling both cartons and PET/HDPE plastic. 

Indonesia to use ISRI Specs to ease restrictions on recovered paper imports

Last month, in an effort to crack down on illegal shipments, the Indonesian government imposed new regulations on imports of recovered paper. The rules included a 0.5% contamination limit and 100% pre-shipment inspections, including separating containers into bales. The government has now announced that it will instead use the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) specifications for recovered paper which set a standard of 1-2% for prohibitives and 3-4% for outhrows. It is also using the specifications to define its use of the word "homogenous" in describing the condition of bales.

Area Recycling MRF upgrade complete

After a two-month construction and installation period, Area Recycling launched its new state of the art material recovery system this week. The facility expansion and equipment upgrade represents a $3.5 million dollar business investment for PDC, Area Recycling's parent company, based out of Illinois.

New report sheds light on Chinese recovered paper markets

Moore & Associates, a paper recycling consulting firm based in Atlanta, recently announced the availability of the 2019 China Recovered Paper Market & Policy Advisory Report.  From Hong Kong-based NPC Partners (a premier and innovative consultancy firm for the pulp & paper industry), the new report presents a view from inside China, including insights and analysis on China's new recovered paper policies, markets and global impacts.

Subscribe to our free newsletter

Get our newsletter

Learn more

City of Lethbridge opens new MRF featuring Machinex sorting system

The City of Lethbridge, Alberta held the grand opening of their new single-stream material recovery facility on May 8. According to Machinex, their sorting system at the facility, commissioned in mid-April, will allow the City to process residential recycling materials generated by a new blue cart program that is currently being set up.

Sani-É​co partners with Machinex on major MRF upgrade

Machinex attended the official ceremony this week marking the major upgrade of the Sani-Éco material recovery facility located in Granby, Province of Quebec, Canada. The owners of the recycling management company reiterated their trust in Machinex, which provided them their sorting center more than 18 years ago. This modernization will allow an increase of their current sorting capacity in addition to bringing a direct improvement to the quality of the fibers produced.

​BHS launches Max-AI AQC-C sorting system

Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) has launched the Max-AI AQC-C, a solution that is comprised of Max-AI VIS (for Visual Identification System) and at least one collaborative robot (CoBot). CoBots are designed to work safely alongside people which allows the AQC-C to be quickly and easily placed into existing Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs). BHS launched the original Max-AI AQC (Autonomous Quality Control) at WasteExpo in 2017. At this year's show, our next generation AQC will be on display along with the AQC-C.  

RePower South starts up advanced recycling system using BHS technology

RePower South (RPS) has begun processing material at the company's new recycling and recovery facility in Berkeley County, South Carolina. The recycling system, provided by Eugene, Oregon-based Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), is one of the most advanced in the world. The highly automated system is capable of processing more than 50-tons-per-hour (tph) of mixed waste to recover recyclables and produce a fuel feedstock. 

​Vilar Guillén: Evolving from a focus on local recycling to world markets

Only a few years ago the standards for recycled paper and board in China were not high. As a massive importer, China is now known to reject entire container loads based upon one inferior bale. Responding to this reality, Valorizaciones Vilar Guillén SL (V V G) set out to streamline their entire business to deliver against tight specifications, earning respect and repeat business as a result.

​Dem-Con MRF retrofit to be complete this summer with addition of MSS CIRRUS optical sorters

Between summer 2017 and 2018, Dem-Con Materials Recovery in Shakopee, Minnesota retrofitted their single-stream MRF with three new MSS CIRRUS optical sorters for fiber from CP Group. The units increase recovery, improve product quality and reduce sorter headcount on the fiber QC.  A fourth MSS CIRRUS sensor is currently in production and will install this summer.

Subscribe to our free magazine

Get Our Magazine

Paper or Digital delivered monthly to you

Subscribe or Renew Learn more

​Canada Fibers awarded contracts to design, build and operate two technologically advanced recycling facilities

Canada Fibers Limited (CFL) has been awarded two contracts to design, build and operate advanced single-stream post-consumer Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in Winnipeg, Manitoba and Peel, Ontario.  The Company is constructing an 80 thousand square foot greenfield facility in Winnipeg and is retrofitting the Region of Peel's existing MRF.  Both projects involve advancements to recovery technologies in response to increasingly rigorous quality standards from industries utilizing post-consumer recyclable materials. 

Machinex and Canada Fibers partnership to result in two of the most technologically advanced single-stream facilities in North America

Toronto-based Canada Fibers Ltd. (CFL) is building two single-stream recycling facilities in 2019 that will include the most advanced, high-tech fibre and plastics sorting and recovery systems in Canada. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a completely new 30-tonnes-per-hour facility (approximately 80,000 square feet) is currently under construction and scheduled to open in the fall. In the Region of Peel, Ontario, the existing Peel Integrated Waste Management Facility MRF, owned by the Region, will be retrofitted for 31.5-tonnes-per-hour capacity, with the updated facility (approximately 85,000 square feet) scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2020. 

Both good and bad news for OCC and recovered paper exporters to start 2019

The good news for recovered paper exporters as the calendar flipped to another new year was China's issuance of almost six million short tons worth of import licenses in December. The first batch of permits issued by China's Ministry of the Environment, covering about 5.5 million tons, was more than double the amount of recovered paper allowed by China's first batch a year earlier.

Balcones Resources celebrates 25 years in business

Balcones Resources celebrated its 25th anniversary in business this month, growing from a small Austin-based paper recycler to a comprehensive environmental services company with facilities in Austin, Dallas and Little Rock. Balcones marked the milestone with a reception featuring a presentation of $25,000 in total donations to five Austin-area environmental organizations: EcoRise, Hill Country Conservancy, Keep Austin Beautiful, Shoal Creek Conservancy and Waller Creek Conservancy.

​TOMRA Sorting Recycling adds to product support team in North America

TOMRA Sorting Recycling has announced two additions to their North America product support team. Sean Hyacinth has been added as a field service engineer for TOMRA optical sorting equipment, while Kevin Javier Montalvo assumes the newly created position of customer project manager, recycling. Both team members will work directly with TOMRA dealers and customers to strengthen equipment service and project management throughout North America. 

​Wolfgang Schiller appointed CEO of ZenRobotics

ZenRobotics Ltd. has appointed Wolfgang Schiller as the company's new CEO, effective immediately. Prior to ZenRobotics, Mr. Schiller was the Vice President Electronics Industry at KUKA AG, a leading supplier of intelligent automation solutions. According to ZenRobotics, as CEO, Schiller will be responsible for further developing ZenRobotics' business and accelerating the uptake of intelligent robots in waste management. 

SamurAI sorting robot finding success in the recycling industry

In the spring of 2018, Plessisville, Quebec-based Machinex introduced its new SamurAI sorting robot, which, according to the manufacturer, has since generated a lot of industry interest. Nearly six months after its launch, the response of the market has been very positive and nine robots have been sold to date. The first two SamurAI in Canada have just been installed in Quebec while six more robots will be installed by next year in Canadian sorting centers. Moreover, the company says they continue to have regular requests from customers who are greatly interested in this cutting-edge technology.

Greif to acquire Caraustar Industries

Greif, Inc., a global provider of industrial packaging products and services, announced December 20 that it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Caraustar Industries, Inc., the leading recycled paperboard and packaging solutions company, from an affiliate of H.I.G. Capital, in a cash transaction valued at $1.8 billion. The transaction is expected to close during the first quarter of calendar year 2019, subject to customary closing conditions, including regulatory clearances. 

​ISRI's 2018 Industry Yearbook confirms recycling industry resilience in year of change

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) recently announced the release of its seventh annual Recycling Industry Yearbook, providing the most up-to-date information and statistics about the U.S. recycling industry and global scrap marketplace. With a greater spotlight on the industry in the wake of rising trade protectionism around the globe, the publication provides the most comprehensive analysis of where the industry stands based on the most current data compared to previous years. It will also serves as a baseline for years to come based on the new global market realities.

REDWAVE report provides insight on the current state of the European paper recycling industry

The purpose of paper recycling is to produce high quality recycled paper, responding to the high-quality specifications required by paper consumers either from the graphic, hygiene or packaging sectors. In consequence, any collection scheme should be designed in a way to provide grades of paper for recycling adapted to the requirements of high value recycling, according to the EN 643 to the paper industry, either directly or after sorting. (EN 643 is the European List of Standard Grades of Paper and Board for Recycling.)

Subscribe to our free newsletter

Get our newsletter

Learn more

Mondi partnerships focused on waste diversion and plastics recycling initiatives

Mondi, a global leader in packaging and paper has partnered with One Young World, the global forum for young leaders, on the Lead2030 initiative - a competition to find youth-led practical solutions to drive progress on the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Mondi has committed $50,000 to fund a project that will make a tangible contribution to SDG12 ‘Responsible Consumption and Production'. 

​Highlights from the 19th annual Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference NA

This year's 19th edition of the Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference North America, held in Chicago from October 17 through 19th and produced by the Recycling Today Media Group, was a very informative, well organized and well attended event, and a good reflection of the mixed feelings currently being expressed by the industry with respect to the state of paper and plastics recycling. On the technology side of the industry, things are largely positive. Business is good. From the latest plastics additive and stabilizing technologies designed to enhance the physical properties and thereby the quality of recycled plastics for compounders and other reprocessors, to the significant advances in sorting, screening and other equipment being put forward by leading manufacturers, it is clear that there is solid demand, and excellent solutions available to help profitably create better quality recycled materials from challenging input streams. The advances in this sector are in fact rapid and ongoing. The latest robotic and optical sorting, coupled with artificially intelligent (AI) "learning" technologies, are particularly impressive - making it difficult for anyone to deny that high-tech materials sorting has a huge role to play in the future of this industry.

​ReWall provides expanded end market for food and beverage cartons in Colorado

The ReWall Company, which turns recycled food and beverage cartons into environmentally friendly building materials, is set to open a new facility in Colorado that will expand end markets for recycled cartons in the western United States. ReWall makes high-performance, sustainable building and construction materials out of recycled food and beverage cartons through a proprietary process that uses no chemicals or water. It takes about 400 cartons to produce one sheet of ReWall's hail-resistant roof cover board.

Meeting new challenges at the MRF

This past summer, Van Dyk Recycling Solutions sponsored and hosted a webinar titled "MRFs in Crisis! Where do we go from here?" During the webinar, Van Dyk's sales manager and process Engineer, Adam Lovewell, along with colleague Mark Neitzey, focused on the topic of how recycling businesses have been struggling to deal with China's changes in import policy. According to Lovewell and Neitzey, the so-called "China crisis" has exposed serious issues throughout the recycling industry and "we have hit a critical point where owners and operators need to take a hard look at their equipment's ability to handle changes in the stream."

MRF Operations Forum 2018

Recycling Today Media Group's 2018 Paper & Recycling Conference North America, the 19th edition, opened officially Wednesday, October 17 in Chicago, following the third annual day-long MRF Operations Forum dedicated to best practices at material recovery facilities. Jim Keefe, RT's Publisher opened the 2018 MRF Operations Forum Tuesday morning by welcoming approximately 100 attendees and introducing the first session: "Dynamic MRF Operations". The title is an appropriate one -- reflecting the overall theme for the day: with changing incoming recycling streams combined with changing global end markets, MRF operations need to be dynamic - adapting to changes and changing the way they operate - to maintain profitability. 

Axxess controls from EPAX designed to improve the safe use of waste compactors and balers

Epax Systems, a specialist in waste management with more than 30 years of experience, recently developed a new method to control industrial compactors and balers called Axxess controls.  According to the company, over the last decade, safety and security have become concerns for multi-use property managers who are seeking to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration's requirements for controlling balers and compactors in their facilities. Since 2017, clients of Epax Systems, inc.  have increasingly communicated the need to improve on their traditional key switch systems, which requires employees to use an on/off key switch to control their compactor or cardboard baler.

CP Anti-Wrap Screen introduced

CP Group has introduced the CP Anti-Wrap Screen, the California-based recycling equipment manufacturer's second new screen of 2018. The new CP Anti-Wrap Screen accurately separates newsprint and large fiber from material streams by using high-amplitude elliptical discs to agitate material.  

TOMRA Sorting Recycling's new E-book addresses need to improve deinking recycling rates

TOMRA Sorting Recycling has published a new e-book providing advice for businesses who sort paper and cardboard for deinking and recycling. The new online publication addresses the intensifying commercial and regulatory pressures for higher recovery rates of deinked pulp and the fact that meeting these demands will require new technical solutions. The e-book introduces an exceptionally effective new solution.

Subscribe to our free magazine

Get Our Magazine

Paper or Digital delivered monthly to you

Subscribe or Renew Learn more