What happens when the world's main buyer of recycled goods suddenly changes the rules about what its willing to buy.
The recycling industry is in a tight spot right now.
That's why some recycling centers are turning to AI and robotics to get more value out of those blue bins.
For decades, China has been the main buyer of recycled plastics, buying roughly 70% of the world's supply each year.
But all the imported plastics started to take a [UNKNOWN] on the Chinese community task with processing it A fact made startling clear in the 2016 documentary Plastic China.
That could be why China decided to abruptly change course in early 2018 with a new policy known as National Sword.
The National Sword policy is China's way of telling the world that it does want its trash anymore.
Now China is only importing plastic that is 99.5% pure.
A standard that our recycling infostructure generally isn't prepared to meet right now.
This has put the recycling industry in a bit of a bind.
Recycled goods deemed too contaminated are piling up Ending up in landfills.
And some recycling centers are having to pay to get their recyclables taken away.
But as history shows us, time and again, crisis can lead to innovation.
To get some more insight, I wanted to talk to one such innovator, Dr. Matanya Horowitz, founder and CEO of AMP Robotics.
I'd visit these recycling facilities and ask them, what do you think about robotics"?
I thought they would be a little skeptical, but that's not actually the reaction I got.
Horowitz told me that he started to notice a demand for automation among recyclers four to five years ago, but that it took some time for technology to catch up with that demand.
The reason you hadn't seen robotics used in recycling previously was that there was no vision system that could identify all this material.
The reason of vision system is so important because of a process called single stream recycling.
Essentially, if you don't need to separate your aluminum from your paper from your plastic and they all go in the same bin, then you've got what's call the single stream recycling service.
Single stream recycling means that it falls on recycling centers to sort everything out.
A tedious and dangerous job that until recently required a human touch.
The core technology that AMP Robotics has built.
Is a computer vision system that has learned to identify all those different materials tha recycling facilities have, whether it's wood, different plastic bottles, cartons, even batteries or electronic waste.
You could show it millions of examples.
Examples of all these things.
And it would learn to identify them.
AMP's sorting robot is called the AMP Cortex.
It uses AMP's AI and vision system to identify materials and directs the robotic grippers to get those materials where they need to To beat.
One of the main arguments for automating this work is the fact that sorting can be quite a dangerous job.
Unfortunately people put all sorts of hazards into the recycling stream.
So this might be hypodermic needles, diapers.
Road kill, a knife, and the result is that people are always on the lookout for these different hazards.
Fortunately because the robots don't really care if they get stuck with the hypodermic needle or other hazards, they cannot stay focused on calibration.
But just because robots don't care if they get stuck with a needle.
Doesn't mean that they can't get damaged in the line of duty.
In these recycling facilities, you never know what's going to come down the line.
It could be a huge box of kitty littler.
It could be a bowling ball.
If the robot smashes into any of this stuff in an unexpected way, it could break these robots in seconds.
It's required a very tight integration between the hardware and software we developed to help protect these systems and keep them running day after day.
Now that the challenges of durability and computer vision have been addressed, it seems technology is catching up with industry demand.
AMP's [UNKNOWN] robots can sort approximately 70 to 80 items per minute now, and recyclers are taking notice.
Single stream recyclers, a client of amps in Florida just added eight more robots to their roster, making it the most automated recycling facility in the world with a grand total of 14 robots.
Antirobots were also put to use helping recover construction and demolition materials in Japan earlier this year
China's National Sword policy was a problem for the recycling business.
And business problems require business solutions, like automation.
But a business solution like automation won't solve the larger problems related to our disposable culture, such as the plastic contamination in our oceans and food.
Fo years, I've felt a nice warm feeling, diligently putting things into the recycling bin while neglecting the first two Rs, reduce and reuse.
I put all my faith into that third R, recycling, thinking it would be my salvation.
But recycling only works when it's done right.
Now this is really hard for me.
I have to get something of my chest.
In researching this video, I learned that I have been recycling wrong.
I have been recycling wrong all this time.
It turns out that plastic bags are the number one contaminant of recycled goods.
Even Ziplocs, bubble wrap and trash bags can cause problems at your typical sorting center by clogging up the machinery.
These things are called plastic films.
And they can be recycled, but they need to go to a special recycling facility.
You can search plastic film recycling to find a drop off spot near you.
I can't even imagine how much recycling I've contaminated with plastic film over the years.
It got me thinking, what else have I been screwing up?
Thankfully, Dr. Horowitz was kind enough to share some recycling tips with me before our interview concluded.
I think it's really important that people become familiar with what is and isn't recycled in their area.
A great example is styrofoam.
Certain places will recycle it, others won't.
Same goes for paper cups.
It's also important that people understand that at least today a lot of the materials they put in the bin actually go by people.
And so it's really unpleasant when people have to deal with hypodermic needles and things like that.
It's also important that they don't put in their electronics with the recycling.
The electronics frequently have batteries and when they go into these collection trucks they typically get smashed and light on fire.
All across the country, recycling facilities are burning down, because of these battery fires.
So please don't put your batteries in, Please don't put your roadkill in.
My personal favorite is, opposite of favorite, is please don't put your diapers in.
Thank you so much for watching, I'm your host Jessie Earl, see you next time.
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