Sydney, Australia — A robot that uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to identify different forms of waste, even plastic films, and sort it into separate streams for recycling is in development in Australia.
Researchers at the Centre for Internet of Things and Telecommunications at the University of Sydney are working with industry partners to turn a material recovery facility into a smart MRF.
The researchers were awarded a $2.9 million Cooperative Research Centres Projects grant from the Australian government to develop automation to better sort recyclables, particularly the shopping bags and cling wrap that gum up waste separation machinery.
The plastic film, or so-called soft plastics, can cause mechanical failures and cross-contaminate other recyclable materials like paper. The waste often is manually sorted — a repetitive and sometimes unsafe task — and then landfilled.
The goal of the initiative is to automate the MRF and increase the rate of post-consumer soft plastics recycling by 80 times 2018 levels.
To that end, the researchers are collaborating with waste management companies iQRenew and CurbCycle, technology developers Licella, Mike Ritchie and Associates, and Resource Recovery Design to design the system. Their work is part of an overall $7.6 million effort to improve recycling infrastructure.
"The recycling robotic automation system will use artificial intelligence and computer vision to learn how to identify different forms of recycling waste, effectively learning how to 'see' and 'sort' waste, to create separate waste streams and maintain soft plastics' purity so they can be recycled," researcher Branka Vucetic said in a news release.
The system will be integrated into iQRenew's MRF as part of a soft plastic recovery program where household recyclables are segregated into bags prior to placement in the curbside recycling bin.
"Not only does our project divert household soft plastics from going to landfills, by creating a solution for the collection and sorting of waste with our industry and research partners, we're also creating a sustainable supply chain that takes rubbish from households to end markets," associate professor Wanli Ouyang said in the same release.
"The robot will identify 'CurbyTagged' bags and differentiate sources of plastic, separating soft plastics from the fully co-mingled recyclables," he added.
After being separated from other waste, the soft plastics will be recycled into oils and other chemicals using patented catalytic hydrothermal reactor (Cat-HTR brand) technology created by Licella Holdings.
"This highly innovative materials handling process can help extend the range of the Cat-HTR conversion technology to now include increasingly challenging waste streams, highlighting the benefit of close industrial and academic collaboration," professor Thomas Maschmeyer said in the release.