- Penn Waste recently spent $3.5 million to upgrade its single-stream MRF in York, PA with Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) equipment. The investments include three NRT optical sorters and a Max-AI Autonomous Quality Control unit, which uses artificial intelligence, vision systems and probabilistic decision making for sorting.
- According to Penn Waste, the investments resulted in a 30% boost to the facility's capacity, from 35 tons per hour to 45 tons per hour. The company also reported increases in recovery and product quality, while reducing labor costs.
- Penn Waste Director of Recycling Operations Tim Horkay said in a press release that the upgrades were complete in nine days, and because of the company's partnership with BHS, not "even a single load" of recyclable material had to be diverted. "Commercial recycling isn't easy right now, but thanks to this system and its upgrades, we are out in front and in a position to take on more material," he said.
Artificial intelligence, long discussed as a possibility in the MRF, appears to be catching on more rapidly this year. BHS debuted the Max-AI system in April at a MRF in Los Angeles. The Carton Council of North America also released "Clarke," a carton-sorting robot with built-in AI, that has reportedly outperformed humans at multiple MRFs. All of this falls in line with what's been said about the future of the waste industry for more than a year now: Robots and other technology will bring "waves of change" to how work gets done.
Investing in sorting technology can be well worth it, as bale quality and facility efficiency increases — two benefits that are especially important given the dynamic and shifting state of global commodity markets. Technological changes aren't going to stop at the doors of MRFs, though — every sector of the waste industry, from safety, to fleet management, needs to prepare for tech to disrupt and change operations. In perhaps one of the surest signs of the times, Waste Management recently announced the selection of a chief digital officer who will be charged with overseeing IT, analytics and data management.
Some projections say that AI innovations, such as driverless vehicles, could eliminate the need for millions of jobs. Penn Waste said in its press release that the additional technology, while improving output and quality, has "also significantly reduced the plant's headcount." At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting that by 2026 the demand for new employees across every industry occupation category will increase. In some cases automated technology could help to fill those gaps, freeing up employees to focus more on safety, quality control or supervisory roles. Like in many industries, how to find a balance during that transition to mitigate displacement is still unclear.