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Can Robots Solve America’s Recycling Crisis?

CNBC reports that to solve America’s recycling crisis, “companies and municipalities are turning to AI-assisted robots.”

The problem began last year when China, the world’s largest recyclable processor, stopped accepting most American scrap plastic and cardboard due to contamination problems, and a glut of plastics overwhelming its own processing facilities. Historically, China recycled the bulk of U.S. waste… The situation is dire for many local economies as recycling costs skyrocket. It’s forced many cities and some small communities to stop recycling all together. Now more waste is ending up in landfills and incinerators.

To tackle this environmental catastrophe, U.S. companies and researchers are developing AI-assisted robotic technology that can work with humans in processing plants and improve quality control. The goal is to have robots do a better job at sorting garbage and reduce the contamination and health hazards human workers face in recycling plants every day. Sorting trash is a dirty and dangerous job. Recycling workers are more than twice as likely as other workers to be injured on the job, according to a report at the University of Illinois School of Public Health. The profession also has high fatality rates.

The way the robots work is simple. Guided by cameras and computer systems trained to recognize specific objects, the robots’ arms glide over moving conveyor belts until they reach their target. Oversized tongs or fingers with sensors that are attached to the arms snag cans, glass, plastic containers, and other recyclable items out of the rubbish and place them into nearby bins. The robots — most of which have come online only within the past year — are assisting human workers and can work up to twice as fast.


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