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AI-powered robot starts sorting Melbourne’s recyclables

Melbourne’s APR Kerbside has been using an AI-powered robot to pick up used Tetra Pak beverage cartons that can be turned into poly-coated boards

Melbourne-based recycling company APR Kerbside has begun using a robot in the materials separation process.

The robot, from Canadian company Waste Robotics, is initially being used to separate Tetra Pak beverage cartons from the rest of the recycling stream at APR’s Truganina material recovery facility.

Earlier this year, SaveBoard – in association with Tetra Pak – opened its first beverage carton recycling facility in Warrangamba, New South Wales, where the cartons are turned into poly-coated boards that can be used in place of plywood and certain other boards in the construction industry.

In addition to Tetra Pak cartons, poly-coated boards can be found in the packaging used by prepared meals specialist Lite n’ Easy. Disposable coffee cups are among the other items made from this material.

While APR is initially sending the Tetra Pak cartons it recovers to Warrangamba, a second facility is under construction in Queensland, and a third will open in Victoria with support from the Victorian government in around 18 months, explained APR managing director Darren Thorpe.

APR currently services the Ballarat, Hobsons Bay, Yarra, Macedon and Moyne councils.

While poly-coated board is currently meant to go into the rubbish bin rather than the recycling bin in these areas, APR’s robot is already making six picks a minute as some people have been putting this type of waste into the wrong bin.

Residents in three of those council areas will soon get the go-ahead to put these items in their yellow recycling bins, Thorpe said. Then the robot should run at its rated 25 picks per minute. Other councils are expected to join the programme.

Waste Robotics did the majority of the installation work, though that was mostly a matter of connecting the robot to the electrical and pneumatic supplies. The company also trained APR staff. “They were really good,” he said.

The robot uses a camera to detect items in the waste stream, but “you’ve got to train it to pick a particular type of material”, he explained.

Training the robot’s AI involves creating at least 20 models to recognise the relevant packages in both standard and high-quality mixed recycling streams.

It involves analysing the video feed from the robot over five minutes or so, and manually identifying the relevant items. The process is then repeated so that the best quality items can be selected by the robot.

In addition, “contaminant” models can be created to help ensure that certain similar looking but unwanted items are not picked in error.

This process was carried out over a few weeks to minimise the disruption to the facility, said APR advanced pyrolysis executive Logan Thorpe. The robot is achieving between 92% and 97% accuracy, he said, with 90% to 95% being an acceptable level, adding that further fine tuning from time to time will help to deliver good ongoing results.

Apart from this initial use of robotics, sorting at the APR facility is a manual process. Automation will help improve efficiency, said Logan. For example, if all the Tetra Paks have already been removed, further sorting of the recyclables will be simplified, and higher quality sorting increases the value of the product. At the same time, it increases the volume of product as fewer recyclable items will be missed.

The payback period for the project is uncertain as it will depend in part on how soon SaveBoard’s additional facilities come online, said Logan.

APR has also invested in an advanced recycling process to handle polypropylene and is considering robotic sorting of meat trays made from that material. Soft plastics are another candidate, other types of material may be added to the list over time.

“The AI is a good piece of tech [for this purpose],” said Logan, adding that it means “we have the capacity to be a little more innovative” and thus recycle a wider range of materials.

Thorpe said the AI robot is a viable investment to take innovative action against products going to landfill, noting that “with the assistance of Tetra Pak, we were able to invest in the technology to target carton packaging and look forward to aggregating that feedstock for further processing”.

“We are looking to install more AI robots as part of our upgrade and expansion plans. It is our commitment to continue supporting carton recycling infrastructure and enable the circular economy so that Australians know their recycling efforts aren’t going to waste,” he added.

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