The new frontier of waste and recycling is upon us- robots! With the cost of labor rising exponentially, the challenges in recruiting human sorters and the general lack of clarity of what’s coming through a materials recovery facility (MRF), more and more facilities are turning to robots to recover commodities.
We’re a fan of all equipment suppliers at Recyclesaurus, so here’s a rundown of some of the top players in robotics and AI in the recycling space. A rising tide raises all ships--and with more competition comes more talent. While some companies who work in this space have the advantage in certain use cases, they all have come a long way since they first started gaining traction around 2014.
These robots don’t have just silly names and arms made out of dryer vent hoses…these are systems built by the brightest minds in the industry.
Bulk Handling Systems (BHS)
Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) began marketing their robot, MAX, back in 2014 to focus on quality control of PET streams. MAX has evolved since 2014, adding multiple heads to their delta type robot and then offering a SCARA robot as well. Their MAX systems now target all commodities, and it's now more common to hear of MRFs with 10+ robots in their facilities. More than other North American companies listed below, BHS has expanded quickly into the Middle East, Australia and other parts of the world.
True startup AMP Robotics is a fascinating story, getting VC backing from the likes of Closed Loop Partners and Sequoia. This signaled that big venture players were taking deep looks at the recycling industry. AMP has secured an impressive roster of customers- working with Keurig Dr Pepper to recover their much maligned K-Cup coffee pods in certain facilities and then locking in a 24-robot purchase order with Waste Connections in 2020.
Since then, they’ve not taken their pedal off the gas. AMP has created secondary processing sites to fill a massively needed gap in the industry- a post MRF processing facility (three in fact at the time of this post) that can focus their AI and robots on low grade mixes of plastics commonly referred to as 3-7s, or 1-7s if PET thermoforms are included.
UPDATE November 2022: Raised another $91M in a Series C.
Generally regarded as the company who kicked off the trend of automating recyclables sortation in a MRF, ZenRobotics has had most of its success to date in Europe and also in construction and demolition (C&D) recycling facilities. Their grasping hand allows their robot to pick up heavier objects. Their marketing is also typically top notch.
UPDATE August 2022: ZenRobotics gets acquired by US based construction and organics recycling equipment supplier, Terex.
A leading manufacturer of recycling equipment for MRFs, this Canadian company created their SamurAI robot (super cheeky name) in recent years. Using an Omron body for the unit, their core mechanical aspects are somewhat different than a BHS MAX, which uses ABB. Machinex has incredible momentum and is deploying their robotic units all over the US.
Van Dyk & Bollegraaf
Van Dyk is a worldwide leader in installing MRF equipment…having inked a deal with Bollegraaf back in the day which gave them a platform to become a leading equipment integrator before other companies even realized recycling was a ‘thing’. Their ROBB AQC (Autonomous Quality Control) is made by Bollegraaf and VDRS is typically deploying these units to clean up plastics streams.
An interesting story with this one. Glacier came out of “stealth” mode in April 2022 after installing several units at West Coast MRFs and applying somewhat of a ‘lean startup’ mentality to their launch. Instead of licensing a robotic body from another tech company like ABB or Omron, they’ve created their own gantry robot. This allows them to build a much less expensive unit and charge clients less so all MRFs can have access to higher level tech.
With a 3 foot by 3 foot footprint, it's also smaller, so these can be squeezed into tight spaces or stacked one after the other. The team has more engineers and data scientists (from places like Google and Facebook) working on the brain than other companies on this list, so it will be interesting to see where this one heads.
Based in startup land in Fremont, CA, Everest is also launching with a few specific test MRFs on the West Coast. Everest uses a Fanuc SCARA robot and can sort on a wider variety of conveyor belts than their competitors, with a small footprint and a lot of grasping tools, as well. Touting their ability to not only clean up material streams, they can also link their dataset among consumer packaging groups, oil companies and recyclers to provide better ESG reporting.
UPDATE September 2022: Everest raises $16.1 Series A.
Tomra has been around since the beginning of high-tech recycling. A worldwide company and a publicly listed company out of Norway, one of Tomra’s claims to fame is that most of the world’s rice (yes, rice!) is scanned and quality controlled by Tomra optical units (removing the grit and stones from the rice itself).
Tomra is embedded throughout European facilities and has a decent footprint in the US. Most automated redemption centers, where you put a bottle into a kiosk and it spits out a receipt for you to get paid, are made by Tomra. Their database of different types of PET bottles is likely unmatched, and their Cybot is focused mostly on PET quality control.
This group hustles. They’ve created their own equipment to sort all types of recyclables, just like BHS or Machinex, but they’ve created their machines to be able to be serviced with spare parts that can be bought off the rack at a place like Uline or Grainger (huge online warehouses for industrial parts). So, instead of getting slammed with some highly marked up replacement part, you can just go to Amazon.
The GreenMachine is inexpensive compared to most, but hasn’t gained much market share as of the date of this post. Their iBot claims to achieve the highest PET purity rates and I don’t put much past these hustlers any more. Their marketing needs some help though. These other companies use Michael Bay-type videos and make me feel our industry is an action movie with Jackie Chan about to kick some HDPE bottles around. These folks have this:
Another Canadian company, these folks offer to scan your trash for free…we’ll have to learn what the catch is…! Regardless, this cartesian robot is known for its use to collect bagged streams of waste. What does that mean, you ask? Lots of programs in the US will use a Pay as you Throw (PAYT) system where certain streams cost money, and a resident is charged per bag or per lb for their disposal costs. These bags of material are usually color coded and have a barcode on them for tracking.
WasteRobotics’ robots can identify those colored bags as they come up the conveyor belt, grab them, and toss them into a chute. These collected bags of material should all have similar contents and can be taken to an end market for further processing. Hefty’s Energy Bag program is an example…or often, organics can be bagged like this and sent to a composter.
No AI here, but still a robot. We love this idea and if any reader is interested in launching a textile sorting company, give us a holler to join in. This company has infrared scanners to detect color and also composition of clothing. This basically means it knows if the clothes on the conveyor are cotton or polyester or some crazy H&M combo of materials (hormone disruptors, anyone?) and place them into pre-designed bunkers.
As a final step prior to going to bunkers, the scanners can detect color…so all blue jeans go here, all wedding dresses go here (sadface), all tuxedos go yonder. All of these items are either grabbed by a robotic SCARA arm or blown via air blast into their pre-determined bunker or cage. Few humans could do this gig as effectively.
Here’s one that shows an example of a robot that doesn’t specifically stay within an MRF. CleanRobotics is a startup using AI within their recycling bin. If the consumer places one item at a time inside of the chute, the item will be scanned and then directed to trash or a mixed recycling stream.
Another non-facility based AI company, Prairie Robotics is a company we’re following. Getting proactive with the battle against contaminated recyclables, Prairie installs AI units on collection trucks and peeks into your recycling cart. It’s vision system can ID up to 13 types of contaminants and then send the household a customized feedback postcard to inform them if they’re wishcycling. They should visit our parents’ houses because they still don’t understand how to recycle no matter what we tell them.
We focused pretty intensely on facility-based robots. But hopefully, dear reader, you’ll see that AI and robotics are being used in a variety of use cases throughout the supply chain. Installing robots in a facility that sorts waste is one thing…but imagine linking that data from those robots with the data gathered from their cousins embedded in dumpsters and collection trucks that feed their facility. A massive web of data to help cities prepare and navigate the daily onslaught of waste.
Facilities are just beginning to install these robots. We could see a day very soon where a facility decides to just stack dozens of robots in sequence without the need for any humans…and reports could go back to brands such as Amazon and Pepsi, informing them on what their recycling rates are. Or maybe our parents will finally get their well-deserved nastygram postcard telling them to flatten their cardboard…because they aren’t listening to us!
Like what’s happening in waste robotics? Check out our other post giving a higher level look at this new frontier. Think a friend might have interest in these types of roles? Forward this on and have a look at current roles in our job board that pertain to robotics.