Sustainably Speaking: Using AI robotics technology to capture recyclables

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – Tri-County Recycling showcased new technology at an open house event on Wednesday at the Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste Facility in Appleton.

The partnership between Brown, Outagamie, and Winnebago Counties debuted a series of robots called AMP AI robotics technology that was purchased and installed back in November of 2023.

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These robots can sort out certain commodities based on cap type, transparency, color, label, and food grade.

As materials go through the line, they pass through three robots, and a fourth will be installed at a later date. The first, Robot A, identifies HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) natural or plastic number 2, which is an example of milk jugs. The second, Robot B, grabs HDPE Color, which is an example of laundry detergent bottles.

Finally, the collection line at the ‘last chance area’ is Robot C, which picks anything that Robot A may have missed, as well as grabs aluminum and polypropylene or plastic number five, which includes dairy and yogurt containers.

Jordan Hiller, the Recycling and Solid Waste Coordinator for Outagamie County, explains the benefits of this new technology.

“They are able to sort commodities faster than a hand sorter can and work around the clock,” says Hiller. “This robot sorts for HDPE natural, so think like your milk jugs. It can pick up anywhere from 45 to 70 pieces of milk jugs every minute. A hand sorter can get around 35 to 40 on a good day, but that’s not going to be consistent throughout the shift.”

Hiller says these robots helped alleviate a major problem at the facility, as for the last few years up until recently, the building was at 50% staff but has since recovered to fully operational. With this technology, the facility can move staff around to different portions of the building and let the robots do this specific job. With this implementation, does this mean human work is going away?

“No, absolutely not. They are not replacing anyone,” says Hiller. “If anything, they are helping us recover more from the stream.”

This would be at the paper line, which Hiller says is constantly contaminated by plastics and metals. With more staff on those lines, more materials can be saved and repurposed off-site.

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Now, what happens when the product material changes over time? The AMP machine works directly with the manufacturers and can implement those changes instantaneously instead of spending time educating the staff on small but important changes. If buyers want specific colors of plastic, they can change the functionality of the machine on the fly so it sorts for that order.

The final step is coming up with the names for each of the robots, as Robot A,B, and C have Hiller says. “Doesn’t sound that fun.” Tri-County Recycling is launching the ‘Cows to Bots Campaign,’ asking the public to think of cow names for each of the machines inspired by the fact that they collect dairy products.

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