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Clean, green machines – the technology cleaning our future

Max the robot in situ at Green Recycling in Essex Max the robot in situ at Green Recycling in Essex
27 Apr
From plastic-eating enzymes and oil-sucking polymers to ‘deep learning’ robots – innovative companies and research institutions are designing the future of the waste industry

‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ is the mantra adopted by environmentalists, with the importance of each command in that order – ie. new technology that improves the recycling process should not replace the ultimate goal of using less in the first place. Nevertheless, as long as consumerism reigns, finding better ways to recycle and clean-up the environment will always prove important. It is in this field that innovators are attempting to create a more efficient future.

Perched on the edge of Essex and overlooking the Blackwater River as it expands into an estuary, lies the historic town of Maldon. Once a thriving port, busy with sailors and wool-traders (the quay has existed for over 1,000 years), it’s now mostly famous for Maldon sea salt, produced since 1882.

Ancient it may be, but let no one say Maldon is stuck in the past. This rural town has recently welcomed a very 21st century resident. It can be found at Green Recycling, a materials recovery facility (MRF), situated in an unassuming industrial park just outside the main town. The plant’s purpose is to collect mixed waste from local businesses and separate it into different material streams (plastic, paper, glass, textiles and the like) through a combination of machinery and human ‘pickers’. The resulting waste is stored in bales and sold on to reprocessors. In most respects Green Recycling is the same as countless other MRFs, but it differs in one key way – they have Max.

baleseditWorkers tidy the bales at Green Recycling

Max is an artificial intelligence robot, designed by US company Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) and is the first of its kind to grace UK shores. Its goal is to recognise and separate rubbish, utilising a process called ‘deep learning’. In short, Max does what humans working on the picking line do, only faster.

BHS says that Max has been designed to mimic the way the human brain works. It’s trained using millions of images and can eventually learn to identify objects it has never seen before. ‘It uses neurone-type thinking as opposed to acting like a photographic memory system,’ explains BHS’ Steve Almond. ‘It’s being taught to think and make decisions.’

At Green Recycling, Max has been set up in the middle of the plant, a large, tapered cube about the size of a walk-in cabinet, its green shell complementing the colour of the older machinery. Around it, the normal work of the MRF continues – a huge cylindrical drum rotates, loosening the mixed rubbish and throwing up particles of dust; a worker grabs rocks from the moving line and lobs them over his shoulder into a bin; next to him another worker does the same with black plastic bags. It’s loud and very, very dirty.

MRFeditThe huge drum (or ‘trommel’) at Green Recycling loosens mixed waste. Tiny bits of paper and stone fall through small holes in the drum’s wall

With Max, things are much calmer. Large glass panels reveal a conveyer belt inside Max that carries mixed waste past a sucker-like hand attached to a mechanical arm. Max ‘watches’ the rubbish go past and uses AI to identify each object. It then launches the arm to pick up the item it has been programmed to remove, before depositing it into the correct chute.

There are obvious benefits. ‘A human might pick up a few wrong things but Max only picks up what we tell him to,’ says Jamie Smith, general manager at Green Recycling. ‘Max doesn‘t stop for breaks, he doesn‘t take sick days.’ It’s a work ethic that has clearly made Max popular among the front-office staff who frequently find themselves humanising the distinctly non-humanoid automaton. ‘He’s part of the family,’ explains Smith.

But while Max works at around twice the pace of a human picker, Smith says it will never replace humans altogether. As he speaks, a long line of plastic labels travels along the conveyor. Max pauses, curiously human in its indecision – plastic labels haven’t yet featured in its education and it doesn’t know how to react. It’s a similar story with a plastic toy antelope. At the other end, Danielle, one of Green Recycling’s star pickers, retrieves the things that Max has missed.

Almond admits that there have been some issues with Max’s UK debut. Back in its native US, it is used to dealing with plastic only. But he says that BHS is confident that it can continue to improve Max and get over the initial problems.

If Max can overcome its glitches there could also be other benefits to the technology. One of the biggest problems facing the recycling industry is contamination of separated materials, often caused by the wrong things being sent for recycling in the first place, mixed recycling collections or problem packaging made up of composite materials.

In January, the Chinese government adopted new rules, banning the import of some types of waste and imposing a contamination limit of 0.5 per cent on the rest (up from 1.5 per cent). It’s been a huge problem for MRFs because the UK previously sent between 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes of waste to China every year, a lot of which was over the new contamination limit. Green Recycling hopes that machines such as Max, which should help to reduce human error during the sorting process, will enable it to bring down the amount of contamination in its final product. Almond notes that the potential for AI goes beyond simple separation and could also be used to monitor the purity of materials coming in and going out of a facility.

cartoneditDrink cartons often contain a layer of aluminium foil bounded to paper, which makes them harder to recycle

Contamination is a problem that’s being tackled chemically as well mechanically. Saperatic is a German company, founded in 2010, that tackles the problem of products made from composite materials (such as drink bottles that combine plastic and aluminium, or batteries containing lithium, aluminium and copper). These products are so hard to separate that they often end up at landfill or incineration sites despite the recyclability of their individual components. The company has developed micro-emulsion liquid that works its way between the tightly compressed layers of composite material, separating them for reuse.

Breaking down products into their component parts makes sense, especially if those parts are valuable. It’s something that corporate giants such as Apple already know. On 19 April, Apple introduced a new robot called ‘Daisy’. Appropriately enough for the design-heavy company behind iPhones and iPads, Daisy is suitably sleek. Its main feature is a white arm suspended from above that whizzes about at speed. Impressively mobile, the arm guides each iPhone on a journey past various devices which compress, stamp and dismantle the phone into small bits of metal

Daisy can disassemble 200 iPhones an hour and, according to Apple, for every 100,000 iPhones it processes it recovers 1,900kg of aluminium, 0.97kg of gold, 7.5kg of silver and 710kg of copper, among other elements.

iphoeneditiPhones are broken down into constituent parts by Apple’s ‘Daisy’ robot

These innovations don‘t come without their critics. Commenting on robots such as Max, Ian Williams, professor of engineering and the environment at the University of Southampton says: ‘Ideally these devices will enable us to get more plastics back but they’re still going to be contaminated. The concern people have raised is that it will put people out of work but won’t make much difference to the actual recycling rate. The reality is that you wouldn’t need these things if you simply had a smaller range of plastics anyway.’

In response to Apple’s Daisy, Greenpeace senior analyst Gary Cook said in a statement: ‘Rather than another recycling robot, what is most needed from Apple is an indication that the company is embracing one of its greatest opportunities to reduce its environmental impact: repairable and upgradeable product design. This would keep its devices in use far longer, delaying the day when they’d need to be disassembled.’

Outside the world of rubbish-sorting, other small companies and research institutions are making their mark. In April, biologists had a breakthrough when they tweaked an enzyme that had naturally evolved to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the most prolific plastics, inadvertently making it even better at the job. The study expanded on the 2016 discovery of a plastic-eating bacteria in a Japanese dump. The international team, led by Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, believes the enzyme can be used for large-scale processes in the future.

dumpeditResearch into plastic-eating enzymes have followed on from discoveries in Japanese waste dumps

Researchers in Australia, meanwhile, have turned their chemical skills to the problem of oil spills. Huge disasters such as the 2010 release of around 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico are clearly catastrophic, but every year there are hundreds of smaller crude oil and hydrocarbon fuel spills taking place around the world, often in areas with limited economic resources. The spills lead to pollution of aquatic environments and threaten drinking water, fish and other aquatic organisms.

‘There are active spills, for instance, in the Amazon basin of Ecuador and also in the Niger Delta,’ says Dr Justin Chalker, lead researcher of the Australian study. ‘These regions cannot at present afford the measures required for remediation. Technologies that are inexpensive and effective in diverse environments are important for solving these environmental problems.’

CleanupeditA new form of ‘floating polymer’ could aid in cleaning up oil spillages in the ocean

In April, Chalker and his team from Adelaide’s Flinders University, introduced a new floating polymer made from sulphur (a by-product of the petroleum industry) and canola oil. The new form of ‘rubber’ (which looks similar to a brown sponge) can rapidly remove oil from water and is then easily squashed to get the oil out. The sponge can then be reused. Because the substance is made from abundant industrial waste it is a cheap, sustainable alternative to the type of products currently used and the researchers believe it can be scaled-up and rolled out for widespread use.

‘There is a tremendous opportunity for creative developments in the way we recycle and repurpose waste,’ says Chalker. ‘The oil spill remediation application is especially interesting because we are using a byproduct of the petroleum industry and then converting it into a technology that can help mitigate the harm of pollution from the same sector.’

Closer to home, Recycling Technologies, based in Swindon, has also created a new material. The company, spun out of Warwick University in 2011, has developed a machine that transforms waste plastic, including hard to recycle items such as plastic film and black plastic containers, into a low sulphur hydrocarbon dubbed Plaxx.

filmeditCampaigners argue that reduction of plastic usage is still the only viable option for a cleaner future

It works through a process of thermal cracking in which the long carbon chains in plastics are cracked into shorter chains. Hot hydrocarbon vapour leaving the reactor is refined and condensed into Plaxx. The company sells the end product as a light oil, wax or low sulphur heavy fuel oil, which it says can be used in a variety of industrial applications, including as a synthetic source for fully recycled plastic.

Sophie Gilham, commercial operations manager at Recycling Technologies says: ‘We must remember that plastic is a remarkable material. It keeps food fresher for longer, cars lighter and so on. It is its end of life that is currently a problem. So we don’t want to be against plastic, but we want to ensure it is a sustainable material.’

For organisations such as Greenpeace, this still represents a misplaced focus. A spokesperson for the environmental campaigners says: ‘Improving our recycling system can be part of the solution to the plastic problem, but we won’t be able to recycle our way out of this crisis. Our society is simply producing too much single-use plastic to start with. This is where companies and governments should focus their efforts if we’re to stop the plastic pollution threatening our oceans.’

Whether we are successful in reducing the amount of plastic produced will largely come down to government policy and the actions of consumer giants. In this respect, the pace of change does show some signs of improvement. Nevertheless, the UK still produces around 3.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year, according to environmental consultant Eunomia. Given this figure, it might be comforting to some that there are people trying to deal with it.

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