Smart robots, sensors and vision systems fortified with machine learning software are creeping into production at recycling facilities in Colorado, Japan, and Europe. The promise is two-fold: Not only could these technologies help speed up the rate at which incoming items can be sorted, they could dramatically improve the accuracy with which operations can identify specific types of plastics and other materials – including one scourge of today’s system, items contaminated with food and other substances.

Two companies talking up the potential to make the act of processing everything from plastic to demolished construction materials far more efficient and scalable include five-year-old startup AMP Robotics, a machine learning and computer vision specialist headquartered in Louisville, Colorado. And a middle-aged Norwegian company, TOMRA, got its start managing reverse vending machines that uses sensors to endow its food sorting and recycling systems with more intelligence.

As its name suggests, AMP Robotics’ innovations lie in how it’s rethinking recycling robots. Founder and CEO Matanya Horowitz began receiving grants back in 2014 to research and develop vision systems that could improve the accuracy of separating items with machines rather than by humans. The company’s equipment is “trained” by being shown millions of images – everything from logos to box shapes to dyed plastics.

Using a combination of light and machine learning software – could be used to sort out colored whipped cream tubs or yogurt containers from clear plastics. It can even identify items that carry a specific brand logo. One early adopter, Alpine Recyling in Colorado, recently was able to add coffee cups to the mix of stuff that its facility can handle. These levels of specificity could be valuable for consumer products companies seeking either to put their own product packaging back into circulation or to buy specific types of plastics. “We can track what is truly being recycled,” Horowitz added, and that could help provide insight into where better collection systems – and messaging – might be needed.

AMP’s latest technology is a dual-robot system called Cortex, which the 35-person company will sell for municipal solid waste, electronic waste and construction and demolition applications. The equipment can sort, pick and place items at a speed of 160 pieces per minute. More important, it will allow facilities to tackle a process that typically has been very difficult to scale – separating post-consumer fiber from cardboard to sheets of paper.

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