An increasing number of fully automated and robotized material recovery facilities across the world are proving the undeniable benefits of AI and robotics in the waste industry. Why should more waste management facilities jump on the bandwagon right now?
By Juha Mieskonen

Interest in intelligent robots is growing among MRFs and there are multiple ways to integrate a robot into one. Photos courtesy of ZenRobotics.

AI-powered robotics can still trigger mental images of Sci-Fi movies and distant futures, but in the waste industry, robotics have been gaining solid ground for more than 10 years and their role is only increasing. Recent advances in the use of AI in waste sorting mean ever-expanding recognition capabilities and enable more accurate sorting tasks. This increases the recovery of the higher-value materials and offers new business opportunities for operators.

The past year showed the whole industry what a digitalized operating environment really means when borders, businesses and physical interactions closed down. There is no doubt that this has fundamentally changed the way we operate, and the future of waste management is set to become fully automated and robotized in just a few short years. This means that now is the time to start investing and gaining experience from AI and robotics in waste management—and many operators are already doing it. Joining this forward-thinking group gives you a head start in applying these emerging technologies and building a competitive edge in the market today.

Why Invest in Waste Management Robotics Now and Not Later?
The waste industry is currently undergoing a digital transition on a scale like never before. That is likely why an increasing number of material recovery facilities (MRFs) are starting to take an interest in robotics. This growing interest is also supported by several factors that are driving the industry in this direction: There are more demands for employee welfare—which increased during the Covid-19 pandemic—national and international regulations are demanding higher recovery rates and purity requirements, and MRFs are also aiming to become more profitable with higher value fractions and around the clock operations. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Risk Management
The world may still be amidst restrictions and social distancing caused by the pandemic, but waste still needs to be collected and sorted. In fact, we have seen a significant increase in some waste streams such as household waste as the use of packaging waste and single-use plastics has spiked during the pandemic. As the amount of household waste builds, waste sorting faces more demands. Waste sorting can as such often be a pretty rough and injury-prone environment for human sorters, but the pandemic has amplified this by putting workers at risk of Covid-19 exposure. Luckily, waste sorting robots can help MRFs mitigate these risks by safeguarding the health of employees by creating opportunities for social distancing at facilities, and by ensuring that essential services are running autonomously.

Tightening Regulations

While the pandemic has showcased the importance of robotics in keeping essential operations running even under unexpected situations, this necessity is not the only factor driving the change. Tightening regulations are also nudging forward-thinking MRF operators to invest in AI-powered robots. In Europe, for example, the EU’s circular economy package includes waste reduction targets for specific streams such as plastics and packaging waste, as well as recycled content requirements for several key products. In addition, the European market is expecting to see new recycling targets and content requirements introduced soon for large industrial waste like construction and demolition waste. These changes create new pressures for waste management systems. Investing in smart robotics helps MRFs future-proof facilities for these developments.

And it is not just public authorities that are expecting higher recycling targets and content requirements. Increasing consumer demands for sustainability put pressure on retailers and consumer goods companies to take ownership of their entire production chain. This is incentivizing players outside the field to acquire their own recycling capacity, which we are already seeing, for example, in Europe.

Large and strong robots sort heavy and bulky objects from industrial and C&D waste.

Increasing Productivity
To stay competitive in the field, MRF operators are looking to become more efficient and profitable. Here, the use of intelligent robotics is key. AI-powered robots help make waste sorting more efficient compared to conventional methods thanks to uninterrupted sorting, which, in turn, increases productivity. Accurate sorting robots powered by AI-based recognition technologies allow MRFs to capture more valuable high-purity materials that can be sold in the market as secondary raw materials. This embraces the ideals of circular economy while also creating new ways to create profit.

What Does it Take to Integrate Smart Sorting Robots?
Across the world, there are a growing number of fully automated and robotized material recovery facilities in operation. These MRFs vary from large fully roboticized greenfield installations to smaller scale facilities where robots complement existing operations. Interest among robotics has risen in the past couple of years and many MRF operators are now considering investing in robot technologies.

While we have seen a number of customers make huge investments into fully robotized high-capacity facilities recently, automating MRF operations does not require plunging straight into one. Like all
elements in factories and facilities, robots come in different shapes and sizes and can be integrated into different surroundings depending on the need, making them accessible to a variety of players across the industry. As the facilities develop and change, so will the functionalities of the robots.

Smaller robots are optimal for material recovery facilities that sort light packaging waste including bottles, lids, cans, tray cups and the like made from plastics in different colors and quantities including HDPE (high density polyethylene), LDPE (low density polyethylene), PET or PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate), PP (polypropylene) and PS (polystyrene). In addition, these robots sort grey and brown fibers including beverage cartons and metals such as UBC (used beverage cans). Due to their compact design, they can be easily fitted into a single sorting bay or retrofitted for different conveyor widths and multi-lane conveyors. As they fit into most picking stations without additional modifications, integrating a smaller robot into a facility is not a huge investment, and is a good way to gain experience in using these new technologies in waste management.

When it comes to bigger industrial waste like C&D with big heavy bulky objects, more power is needed—meaning bigger robots. Robots meant for this type of sorting can also be integrated into waste sorting facilities in various ways. Like their smaller counterparts, large robots can be fitted to complement existing operations or as the main sorting system for a fully robotized greenfield installation. They can also be set up as a standalone waste sorting process which can be easily connected to existing facilities.

Smaller robots sort lightweight objects like plastics, packaging waste, fiber and small metals.


There is no single solution when it comes to integrating robots to waste management facilities—different types of waste, needs and surroundings demand unique solutions. As robotics in this area are already highly advanced, it is likely that a robot already exists for your waste management needs. And in the unlikely case that a solution does not already exist, providers are more than up to the challenge of creating one.

Still Unsure About Investing in Robots?
The past year put a lot of pressure on the waste industry and demanded fast changes—there is no reason to expect that this will change in the foreseeable future. The amount of waste generated will only keep growing, which will result in more demand for waste sorting and recycling. At the same time, calls for recovering valuable materials from the waste stream and keeping them in circulation will only get louder.
Using robotics in MRFs will help the industry answer these needs and stay competitive in the evolving market. Robotics will increase employees’ welfare and safety, boost efficiency and profits, as well as ensure that the facilities are ready to comply with all future regulations. If you are still unsure about investing in robotics, contact robotics providers for more information. We look forward to partnering with frontrunning companies that are looking to embrace new technologies to keep the waste industry profitable for the decades to come. | WA

Juha Mieskonen is Head of Sales for ZenRobotics (Helinski, Finland). ZenRobotics is a leading supplier of intelligent sorting robots for the waste industry and the first company to apply AI-based sorting robots to a complex waste-sorting environment. Their intelligent robots, powered by their very own advanced AI software, make recycling more efficient, accurate and profitable. Our ambition is to make the circular economy a reality by turning global waste into clean raw materials. For more information, e-mail or visit or contact our Sales Team