Innovative technology, from artificial intelligence and robotics to the internet of things and resource tracking, is being developed to help the sector transition to a more circular economic model. Phil Lattimore explores the solutions, and where they may lead in the future.
Can robots save the planet? Will artificial intelligence (AI) help us reach zero-carbon targets? And can smart tracking tech help us close circular loops?
A myriad of smarter technology solutions is being developed to address the issues of minimising resource waste and maximising the reuse and recycling of materials, addressing consumer, producer and waste-sector issues.
For an increasingly complex resources and waste industry looking to transition to a more circular economic model, what are the technologies to watch, how will they play out in the future, and what drivers will shape them?
‘Technology – from artificial intelligence and robotics to the internet of things (IoT) and new chemical processes – has a hugely important role to play for the waste and resources sector,’ says Gareth Morton, discovery manager at producer responsibility compliance organisation Ecosurety. His role is to help the organisation explore opportunities for innovation and identify interesting, novel concepts. He is also responsible for the Ecosurety Exploration Fund, which is helping to fund innovative projects.
‘New technology opens up new opportunities to deal with some of these more challenging materials better, faster and cheaper, enabling us to make inroads into the circularity concept,’ Morton says.
‘New technologies can help address issues with some materials that have been around for a long time in new ways. They enable us to target the quality and value of recyclable materials in the waste stream, rather than simply focusing on the quantity of material being collected or passing through the system.’
Morton believes the changing economic and policy environment around the resources and waste sector is playing a key role in driving this change. ‘There is always going to be the “lightbulb” moment in labs, when someone comes up with a great idea. But taking that through, and running it into an industry-standard technology, requires the economics to stack up and the right policy drivers from government.
‘The upcoming Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislative change is making a lot of businesses sit up and take notice – they have to think seriously about where they are going to be when EPR kicks in. That creates an interesting environment in terms of innovation because, suddenly, they have to look for new solutions to deal with issues such as tracking, verification and sourcing high-quality secondary plastic. The next five to 10 years could be transformative.’
Morton believes the increased economic value of materials that EPR – and policies such as a UK plastic packaging tax – will bring could foster an economic environment that’s more sustainable for investment in circular processes and infrastructure.
‘In some ways, taxation can be a blunt instrument,’ he says, ‘but a plastics tax could be stimulating, because, to avoid the tax, you need quality recycled plastic feedstock – and to get that feedstock, you need better-quality recycling and facilities to produce it. It changes the potential economic landscape.’
Artificial intelligence and robotics
One of the most discussed technologies in recent years, AI has the potential to address key issues for improving waste and resources management. Its potential application in industry is vast, but immediate solutions for waste management include using AI to optimise robotic sorting solutions, enabling improved sorting on automated waste lines at material recycling facilities (MRFs), so more precise selection can be achieved – thereby improving the purity, quality, speed and efficiency of waste-stream sorting.
AI-powered robotic systems can use sensors to identify objects passing through a sorting line by visual cues – such as colour, shape, logo or texture – and sort types of objects, with the AI system able to categorise and subcategorise them further.
Machine learning enables the systems to refine decision-making about materials, and enables an automated system to sort far faster than humans, to ensure efficient material separation. In addition, AI-powered robotic automation can work 24 hours a day if required, working much faster than manual processing, and so increase the potential processing capacity of MRFs.
While greater capital investment is required for this technology, operating costs are reduced, with fewer workers required for sorting, and a greater quantity of higher-quality material recovered and recycled.
Finland-based ZenRobotics is one of the pioneers of AI-powered robotics in Europe and beyond. Its picker systems can be retrofitted and integrated into existing processes and conveyor-belt systems, with its ZenBrain AI technology behind the robot arms. Sensors provide information on the waste stream that is being sorted and feeds data to the picking arms. Over time, as more waste is processed through the system, the AI ‘brain’ identifies more waste streams and substreams. The identification and separation process can run to dozens, even hundreds, of material types.
AI has the potential to address key issues for improving waste and resources management. Its potential application in industry is vast…
According to Swedish waste company Lundstams Återvinning, the installation of one of ZenRobotics’ systems resulted in it sending far less residual waste to incineration, because the improved sorting technology allowed more material to be recovered and recycled. The saving on residual waste disposal amounted to €20,000 (£17,000) per month.
Among the firms looking to bring AI to the waste sector in the UK is start-up Greyparrot. It is offering a solution that automates the manual process of sampling and auditing material through intelligent monitoring and analysis.
The company is involved in projects with various waste facilities, including one funded by Innovate UK – with paper-recycling firm Paper Round and Middlesex University – to develop an AI-driven, low-cost robotic solution capable of detecting and recovering plastics from mixed waste streams.
Its solution combines visible image data with live image processing and analysis, using AI deep-learning techniques to recognise and distinguish waste types, thereby providing accurate, real-time data on what’s going through the system.
The AI waste-recognition software will be integrated into a third-party hardware system and use deep learning to solve complex visual problems to ensure robots can ‘see’ the waste with the same, or better, accuracy than humans. The software uses embedded prediction models that allow remote, continuous monitoring and improvement.
Another AI start-up, Recycleye, is developing a computer vision system and affordable robotics for automating MRFs. Working with partners including Imperial College, Recycleye’s vision system can detect and classify all items in waste streams – broken down by material, object and brand – using deep learning and a database containing more than 2.5 million training images created from optical sorters.
AI can also be employed in other novel ways – such as in sorting systems for deposit return scheme (DRS) reverse-vending machines, for example. This summer, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council is partnering with the environmental charity Hubbub and McDonald’s to use intelligence gathered from drones and other sources, and AI, to inform the placement of bins, street-cleansing schedules and behaviour-change campaigns to encourage visitors to dispose of their litter responsibly.
The technology, used in Sorrento, Italy, last year, can identify and categorise individual pieces of litter, giving insight into what types of litter are being dropped, where and when, to create ‘litter maps’ that will help the council place bins more effectively.
Smart monitoring, tracking and sensors
As we transition to a more circular economy, tracking and tracing technology is set to become increasingly important in resource and waste management. The changing regulatory environment, EPR and plastic packaging taxation are among the drivers for end-to-end systems of accountability that can trace material from sourcing and manufacture to collection, reprocessing and recycling. Ensuring such a joined-up approach is a vital part of a circular economy that maximises resources and reduces waste, says Ecosurety’s Morton.
‘It’s crucial to keep track of materials and to ensure what is collected is recycled,’ he says. ‘Smart tracking technology can provide that meaningful data.’
A number of approaches to tracking products are being developed, from electronic tags to smart codes. The Ecosurety Exploration Fund, for example, is working with tech start-up Polytag, which has developed a tag-and-trace system that enables brands to assign unique codes to each unit of a product.
Its IT platform allows these codes to be read at any point of the life-cycle of the product, so can be used for DRS platforms (with a phone app) and for calculating EPR liability, plastic tax and supply-chain traceability. Pilots of the technology are under way in Wales.
As we transition to a more circular economy, tracking and tracing technology is set to become increasingly important in resource and waste management
The UK government has also funded the development and trials of several technologies. One recently announced project is with flexible-electronics firm PragmatIC, which has been awarded a £1.3m contract from the Sustainable Innovation Fund for a state-of-the-art recycling scheme based on its ultra-low-cost, near-field communication tag technology.
PragmatIC’s Sustainable Plastics Recycling Innovation by Tagging Electronically (Sprite) initiative will give PET bottles and refillable packaging unique digital IDs to support automated identification and recycling. These can be used to enhance automated DRS schemes, using embedded, ultra-low-cost electronic tags – called FlexICs – on products.
Another government-funded project is with specialist sustainability services and solutions provider Anthesis, which has been working with Defra to develop an end-to-end, central digital-reporting system for the Smart Waste Tracking Project. The system could replace paperwork and reporting portals to track waste from the producer, throughout its journey, to its final destination in near-real time.
‘If we improve the tracking, we will end up with better-quality recycling in the UK and Europe, and encourage a more circular use of resources – we will know what we are doing with it all along the value chain and where it ends up,’ says Ecosurety’s Morton.
Internet of things
Imagine a future scenario in which an AI-powered, autonomous RCV diverts to collect recyclable plastic from a smart waste container that has signalled it is full. It then takes that material to a nearby reprocessing facility seeking a particular grade of material feedstock at that precise moment – all without a human operative involved.
The internet of things (IoT) is the concept of a vast array of devices, sensors and everyday objects connected via the internet. It has the potential to reshape the way many organisations and sectors operate by providing dynamic, real-time connectivity and data exchanges between devices, enabling more efficient – and even automated – operations and decision-making.
In the resources and waste sector, the IoT’s potential could be applied in processes where real-time data can optimise operations, reducing waste, improving recycling quality, and cutting operations costs through more streamlined collections, while improving collection services for residents and businesses.
The IoT is already employed in vehicles, via telematics technology, to plan collection routes, but enhancements – such as sensors in bins – could provide additional information on volume levels or materials that could be updated to optimise collection routes.
With the resources and waste sector facing increasingly complex requirements as we move towards a circular model, smart technology to track, monitor and manage materials collection and processing demands more information and data integration
For example, prioritising full bins and minimising stoppage points for empty bins, where collection is unnecessary, or flagging up urgent waste issues that need a fast response. For commercial collections, additional information could be delivered on factors such as weight and composition of waste.
IoT technology, such as radio-frequency identification on bins, allows operators to keep track of assets, while the integration of IoT devices and sensors into automated or AI-powered systems and processes can enable more efficient flows of waste, and enhance separation and recycling.
One such consumer-facing example is the Bin-E smart bin, an IoT-enabled device that’s designed to collect waste in an office or public space. It uses AI-recognition technology to sort and compress materials, with fill-level control and data processing, and can connect, via the internet, with a waste organisation to optimise collection.
With the resources and waste sector facing increasingly complex requirements as we move towards a circular model, smart technology to track, monitor and manage materials collection and processing demands more information and data integration. IoT connectivity has the potential to create a wider network of smart devices, vehicles, applications, processes and facilities, to help deliver a more joined-up, end-to-end process for tracking, monitoring verifying and recycling materials.
This feature first appeared in the May / June issue of Circular magazine.