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Contributed by DERRIC BROWN

When consumers think of recycling, an image of the chasing arrows and the 1970s “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan might come to mind. Those of us in the industry know that technology has played an important role in the evolution of recycling, so it was just a matter of time before robots got involved.

That’s right. Robots have started sorting food and beverage cartons at recycling facilities.

Cartons are one of the most sustainable, in-demand packages available, made mainly from paper, a renewable resource from well-managed forests. Aseptic cartons (or shelf stable) contain on average 74 percent paper, 22 percent polyethylene and 4 percent aluminum. Gable top (or refrigerated) cartons contain about 80 percent paper and 20 percent polyethylene.

Cartons have a low carbon footprint, as well as a low package-to-product ratio at 94 percent product and just 6 percent packaging. This helps companies ensure they are using the least amount of materials possible, helping to preserve Earth’s resources. No longer used just for milk and juice products, companies are packaging soup, water, nutritional shakes, broth, cream, wine and even tomatoes and beans in cartons.

Recognizing the growth in cartons’ popularity in the U.S., the next step was to make sure they could be readily recycled. That’s why the Carton Council of North America formed in 2009: to help reduce the number of cartons going to landfills and build an infrastructure for recycling them via local recycling programs. Funded by carton manufacturers Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Evergreen Packaging and Tetra Pak, and associate member, Nippon Dynawave, the group promotes recycling technology and works with local collection programs, including this pilot program that utilizes robots to sort cartons.

A lot of progress has been made. Earlier this year, cartons reached the 60 percent household access threshold. This means that more than 70.7 million households in 12,800 communities can recycle their cartons via curbside and drop-off locations across the United States, and cartons can now carry the standard “Please Recycle” logo per the Federal Trade Commission Green Guidelines.

Robotics and Recycling

The Carton Council of North America wanted to explore new, innovative solutions for sorting cartons once they arrived at materials recovery facilities (MRFs). In March, they announced a partnership with AMP Robotics and Alpine Waste & Recycling for a pilot program that uses artificial intelligence to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of carton recycling.

A robotic system with spider-like arms and specially designed grippers has learned to identify the various food and beverage cartons to grab and separate them from the recycling stream. Nicknamed “Clarke” after the sci-fi author and futurist Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, the system uses an optical scanning system to recognize thousands of images of cartons, including their logos and artwork.

Installed in late 2016, Clarke has achieved a pickup rate of 60 cartons per minute, a considerable increase from the human average of 40 picks per minute. It can operate around the clock without interruption and requires little maintenance, allowing MRFs to process a steady flow of the valuable carton material.  

Clarke’s accuracy is constantly evolving as he learns to recognize more kinds of food and beverage packages.  One of the major benefits to the system is that everything Clarke learns is transferrable to robots at other MRFs.

The robot can be added to existing recycling facilities at other MRFs and takes up little space. The systems are available for sale or lease, and are believed to pay for themselves after one or two years. The robot should be a cost-effective alternative to other methods for sorting and separating recyclable materials.

While Clarke is great news for the carton industry, it also presents major opportunities for the recycling industry. Not only can these systems be trained to pick out other recyclables that don’t always represent large volume in the recycling stream, but unique grippers can be developed to identify and pick contaminants, which is one of the biggest issues the recycling industry faces today.

Ultimately, the advances in carton recycling robotics will help to achieve a goal that should be top of mind for everyone: ensuring the least amount of materials possible end up in landfills.

Derric Brown is vice president of sustainability for the Carton Council of North America.

Published in the July 2017 Edition of American Recycler News