How Are AI and Robots Changing Waste Management?

Posted on 16/06/2022 by EmilyNewton in Environmental

AI and robotics are revolutionizing waste management technology in ways that could help save the environment and improve public health. Trash is a major concern worldwide. Plastic pollution has gotten out of control and recycling facilities are struggling to keep up, especially concerning things like electronics and contaminated plastics. 

AI and robots are changing that, though. These waste management technologies are opening the door for fully automated recycling. This means more types of garbage can be recycled and processed much more efficiently, effectively and safely. Here’s how AI and robotics are helping to manage waste and keep the planet clean.

The Power of Automated Waste Management

All kinds of industrial processes are getting automated today. What makes automated waste management technology different? Many people don’t realize how complicated sorting plastic for recycling actually is. Only certain types of plastic can be recycled, and various methods are required. 

Plastic waste that arrives at recycling facilities must be meticulously sorted before it can be processed. The process is tedious, time-consuming and often dirty. Robots and AI are completely transforming recycling by intelligently automating it. 

For example, one of the largest plastic reclaiming companies in the U.S., Evergreen, adopted AI-powered robotics to automate its plastic sorting. Staff could no longer keep up with the rising rates of plastic waste Evergreen’s facilities had to process. The robotic sorting system uses AI computer vision to sort bottles based on characteristics like color and composition. It increased the sorting rate by 200% and helped improve the quality and consistency of the recycled plastic it produces. 

This is the future of recycling and waste management. AI technology may even help recycling companies manage more unique or challenging types of garbage. For example, items contaminated with DAB or other hazardous materials are much more difficult to process and may pose health risks. AI can help identify contaminated waste and sort it from other plastics. Similarly, electronics recycling is getting a refresh thanks to AI and robotics. 

Advancing Electronics Recycling

Electronics recycling is notoriously difficult. Unfortunately, it’s also a serious issue. According to the World Health Organization, e-waste threatens the health of over 18 million children worldwide. Exposure can harm growth and development, damage intellectual abilities, affect lung and thyroid function, and even cause DNA damage. 

Something must be done to manage electronic waste. The challenge is that every manufacturer uses its own building process and materials, so a standardized recycling system is nearly impossible. However, organizations are trying to do something. For example, two different programs, one in California and the other in Colorado, recycle electronics by refurbishing them for other people to use. 

The Potential of AI and Robotics

AI and robotics may be able to completely transform electronics recycling, though. For example, a smartphone recycling robot could use computer vision to identify and sort phones by manufacturer. Companies could submit details on how to disassemble their devices so the robots could be programmed to autonomously disassemble each cellphone. The parts would then be safely sorted based on the material they are made of. 

This way, things like valuable metals, cameras and computer chips could be used to make all-new devices. Several research projects are focused on working to create an AI robotic system like this a reality. For example, the University of Buffalo and Iowa State University are teaming up to develop an AI robot that can identify high-value parts in “dead” smartphones. 

One Step at a Time

The earliest mainstream implementation of robotics and AI in electronic waste management will likely be in identifying hazardous materials. Batteries can have harmful chemicals that pose a significant health risk to people and the environment. 

Most electronics recyclers today focus on batteries. In addition to being harmful to the environment, they are also the largest and most valuable part of disposed phones. More batteries could be salvaged if the process could be automated, which would at least reduce the amount going into landfills every year. 

Waste Management in the Outdoors

Waste management technology is helping control pollution in the outdoors, as well. Plastic is the largest trash threat to nature, but all kinds of garbage finds its way outside. Robots and AI can help manage and reduce the spread of waste in the great outdoors, even in the ocean. 

Experts estimate that over 5.25 trillion pieces of trash are in the world’s oceans. Nearly 270,000 tons of that waste floats on the surface. Waste is extremely dangerous for aquatic life. Animals that mistakenly eat plastic can get sick or die of starvation. It pollutes habitats and injures countless animals, as well. 

This is a problem for humans, too. The ocean is an important source of food and resources. People will feel the impact if ocean ecosystems are destroyed by poorly managed waste. 

Luckily, robots and AI are here to help. These waste management technologies are a game-changer when it comes to outdoor waste. There’s a lot of ground and water to cover, and automation is key to turning the tide of nature pollution. Numerous organizations are developing technology to conquer this challenge. 

From Rivers to Beaches

Urban Rivers developed a little robot called the Trash Bot that roves waterways, scooping up waste. It’s unique in that the developers hope to make it remote controllable from anywhere in the world. Users could use them virtually to compete in a real-life trash-collecting game. 

Similarly, the BeBot is a remote-controlled, fully electric robot that cleans beaches. Waste management can be a particular challenge on beaches because things easily get buried in the sand. The BeBot is designed to simplify the process. It can clean up to 3,000 square meters of beach every hour and has built-in solar panels so it can run on clean energy, too. The BeBot can recover pieces of trash as small as a single square centimeter.

The Future of Waste Management Technology

AI and robotics are the future of waste management technology. Both technologies are vital to automating recycling and trash recovery. Organizations can use them to process more garbage and reduce the amount that ends up in landfills. They can even use robots and AI to clean the world’s beaches and waterways. 

Effective waste management helps produce responsibly made recycled products, reduce pollution and build a cleaner, healthier world.

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