AI-driven robot 'Clarke' outperforms humans in carton recycling

Dive Brief:

  • The Carton Council of North America has announced the success of a pilot program that is using artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic systems to collect cartons more efficiently at the Alpine Waste & Recycling's material recovery facility in Denver.
  • Clarke, named after science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke, has specially designed arms and grippers to pluck cartons off the line from among other materials. Using AI to learn features such as logos, textures and shapes, Clarke can pull up 60 cartons per minute as compared to the human average of 40 per minute. 
  • The Carton Council and AMP Robotics aim to eventually install similar units at other MRFs throughout the country.

Dive Insight:

As cartons become more prevalent on store shelves and in the waste stream, manufacturers behind the Carton Council have been working to expand their recovery options. The group recently announced that cartons have surpassed the key mark of 60% recycling access among consumers that qualifies the packaging as "recyclable" under Federal Trade Commission guidelines. With more of these cartons presumably now ending up in recycling carts, the focus has shifted to making recovery as efficient as possible.

Alpine is one of the more advanced recycling companies in the Denver area, as seen by its recent investment in MRF upgrades to enhance glass diversion. It is also among the many companies interested in bidding to operate a MRF in nearby Boulder, which is currently run by the nonprofit Eco-Cycle.

Whether in Colorado or elsewhere, Clarke's success so far makes a good case for duplicating the system soon. Any new technology that can make separation more efficient, while learning to identify changes in packaging, will be very valuable for MRFs looking to maximize profits and reduce contamination. As is often discussed by the International Solid Waste Association and others, robotics have the potential to play a big role in the recycling industry. From collection to sorting to disposal many more announcements like this can be expected in the coming years.

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Filed Under: Recycling Waste Diversion