By now it’s common knowledge, robots are on the rise. There are robot checkouts in some stores, industrial robots in factories, and warehouse robots that ensure the prompt delivery of your Amazon orders. When the bugs are worked out in self-driving vehicles, robotic trucks will dominate our roadways. Clearly, jobs will be lost. Still, robots may be able to avoid a national crisis. And that crisis is… our Garbage.
While it took decades for everyone to separating out our trash, an entire generation of Americas grew up with recycling. Still, few Americans understand that the foundation of our recycling system is our ability to send our garbage to China. Even fewer know that since 2013 China has regularly notified the world that they would enact new environmental standards to limit the importation of recyclables (the “Green Fence”). In 2018 the standards went into effect, and a year later… 90% of US recyclables are being rejected by China.
We now have a choice. Either store recyclables until we run out of space, throw it all into garbage dumps, or develop new technology and techniques to deal with recyclables (and garbage in general). However, China not only provided a location to send our garbage… THEY PAID US FOR IT! Money from China provided the financial foundation of America’s $100 billion recycling industry. Without this money, there is much less money for new recycling programs, and existing programs around the nation are collapsing.
Because we had the cheap, often profitable, option of selling recyclables to China, very little new recycling technology has been developed in America in the past few decades. From an engineering point of view, the bests option is simply to not produce all of the “recyclables” that we do. Most packaging could be redesigned to greatly reduce the total tonnage of recyclables. Go a bit further, and you can create new materials that will biodegrade so that this garbage goes away after sitting around for a while. Or you could re-engineer the whole supply chain so that it was cheap and profitable to domestically recycle our garbage.
But we did none of these things. We chose not to invest, and our recyclables took the risk-free path to China. Did I say risk-free? That’s not how the recycling industry feels now! With the sudden loss of income from China, recyclers have doubled or tripled the fees they charge to towns and cities. Many municipalities have already begun to scale back or eliminate recycling. Some towns are just sending materials directly to landfills. By the end of 2019, it’s going to get a lot worse.
Most of America’s recycling center are just sorting centers. The actual recycling process… turning recyclables into new products… is performed in China. Carefully sorted recyclables have a higher value per ton. Recycling centers did just enough sorting to make it profitable to send offshore. But when the new environmental standards were put in place, and China rejected low quality (dirty, poorly sorted, contaminated) recyclables, the new (higher) cost of sorting made the entire process too expensive. in 2017 we had a nearly 100% acceptance rate. Now we have a +90% rejection rate.
What are our options? What can we do to save our recycling industry? We could develop new technology that makes it profitable to turn old plastics and paper into new products, but that is going to take years… if not longer. However, there are a few promising near-term options:
Robot Sorters: If our sorting centers were more efficient, more recyclables could be shipped to China. Not my favorite option, but it is at least a short-term solution. Most American sorting centers do work manually. China’s new regulations make manual sorting too expensive. It’s simple economics. If you want to move more products, lower their cost.
Other types of robots use technology that can be used in a sorting center. Sensors to “see”, other sensors to identify different types of metal, the ability to “feel” different textures. It’s just a matter of combing tech from several different existing robots into a new model that sorts garbage. A number of robotics firms are developing sorting robots that can sort more materials in less time, at a lower cost.
As soon as 2020, these robots could be rolled out. Undoubtedly, these robots will change the cost equation, and make recycling profitable again. If efficiency and profitability continue to rise, more of the garbage in our environment may be seen as money lying on the ground… and someone will pick it up!
Robot Garbage Trucks: Small towns in America and around the world are shrinking, and are desperate for ways to provide services with a falling tax base. In most of thee municipalities, the two largest city contracts are for school buses and for waste management. Cutting the cost of waste management has become vital to their survival.
Even before the new regulations from China, towns were testing technology to reduce the cost of waste management. Trucks with a robotic arm (to lift garbage cans) have been around for a few years, and these trucks reduce the usual two-man team (driver and garbage handler) to just one. That significantly cost costs.
These trucks have sensors to distinguish between the recyclable and the garbage bin. Most of the work to date has focused on just the garbage. Due to the new changes, putting these trucks on recycling duty might ease the cost of collecting, even if it did not specifically affect sorting.
Even Better Robot Trucks: Let’s step it up a notch! A fully electric robot vehicle would cost less to operate than a gasoline-powered truck, and it would generate less pollution. With two separate bins, the truck could collect garbage and recyclables in one trip, instead of the two trips (or trucks) that most waste management systems use. And of course, if the trucks were self-driving, a completely automated vehicle would add to savings.
Robotic Enforcement: There are essentially two different recycling methods. Single-stream and Multi-stream. Single-stream is preferred by many municipalities because it is simpler for end-users. Just put all recyclables in one bin. Multi-stream uses separate bins for metal, plastic, and paper. Multi-stream reduces sorting center work and limits cross-contamination. Consider placing an empty can of tuna on top of newspapers in a single-stream bin. If you didn’t wash out the can, fish juices will contaminate the paper.
And, of course, we will always have individuals who just won’t follow orders, and the wrong materials are in the wrong bin, or they just don’t separate out anything. Robotic trucks can use their “eyes” to look into bins, or even use high-speed cameras and the bins are emptied to examine the entire contents. Those who have not sorted their garbage can be automatically fined. It may sound petty, but if contaminated recyclables have no value, the entire community pays a higher price for waste management. Is it better to fine the entire community, or just a few offenders?
So. This is our future.
Not in 100 years. Our future, next week. Go call your mayor. Ask about your recycling program. Your city is probably scrambling for a place to store recyclables for the new couple of months. If not weeks. We’ve got to do something soon, and robots may be our best short term solution!
What do you think? Is your city grappling with the new garbage crisis? Have they found any new solutions? Let us know!