Today’s Solutions: November 29, 2021

The problem that has long plagued recycling is that too many different kinds of waste are mixed together, which needs to be accurately sorted out in order for recycling to be effective. But thanks to new artificial intelligence, we have a revolutionary solution to the problem of sorting waste.

In Colorado, Japan, and Europe, we’re starting to see smart robots, sensors and vision systems fortified with machine learning software creeping into production at recycling centers. The promise is twofold: Not only could these technologies help speed up the rate at which incoming items can be sorted, but they could also dramatically improve the accuracy with which operations can identify specific types of plastics and other materials — including one scourge of today’s system, items contaminated with food and other substances.

With AI, facilities can become far more specific about separating streams of waste, which could allow operations to capture revenue from entirely new sorts of services. For example, the technology — using a combination of light and machine learning software — could be used to sort out colored whipped cream tubs or yogurt containers from clear plastics. It can even identify items that carry a specific brand logo.

One early adopter, Alpine Recycling in Colorado, recently was able to add coffee cups to the mix of stuff that its facility can handle. These levels of specificity could be valuable for consumer products companies seeking either to put their own product packaging back into circulation or to buy specific types of plastics. Ultimately, AI could finally fulfill the promise that recycling once had and lead us closer to a closed-loop production system.

This story was one of the best from 2019, and we are happy to include it in our “12 Days of Optimism” as we get ready to welcome 2020!

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