Rethinking the Recycling Center: Automation enables growth for facilities with waning manpower

By Claire Swedberg | Apr 15, 2024
Rethinking the Recycling Center
Despite publicized challenges around sortation requirements and reliability in the waste stream, recycling centers have recently been gaining new life. 




Despite publicized challenges around sortation requirements and reliability in the waste stream, recycling centers have recently been gaining new life. From plastics to aluminum, cement and cardboard, the volume of material headed for recycling centers is growing, but in many cases these centers are operating with less manpower and need more automation. To meet the challenge, deployment of high-tech, low-voltage automated systems is gaining steam.

Companies can now operate a recycling center with fewer workers and greater capacity, and there is an industry-wide effort to keep up with federal and local requirements. 

On a federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Recycling Strategy was finalized in November 2021. The agency has been working collaboratively across all levels of government to put it in place since then, said Remmington Belford, EPA press secretary.

The EPA is awarding over $190 million in grants, funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, to over 160 entities including states, Native American tribes, local communities and nonprofit organizations. The aim is to improve their recycling infrastructure, solid waste management plans and data collection, as well as education and outreach. 

Additionally, recycling efforts will be expanded to include curbside recycling and material recovery for electronics, textiles, cement, concrete and food waste.

“The National Recycling Strategy outlines many specific actions that entities can take,” Belford said. “EPA is planning additional strategies to address these and other aspects of building a circular economy for all.”

A long, sometimes slow journey

Current recycling infrastructure in the United States has not kept pace with today’s changing material stream. While U.S. recycling rates have lagged behind those in other countries, it is one of the largest producers of municipal solid waste in the world.

Many communities struggle to fund recycling programs due to market fluctuations of materials, contamination in the recycling stream and outdated infrastructure, Belford pointed out. The increased cost of processing and lower market prices of recycled materials means products that should be recycled are often being channeled into landfill. Contamination in the recyclables stream can cause equipment failures and halt production lines for removal of unwanted materials.

Many of these problems stem from how labor-intensive the traditional recycling process is. But the multistep process ultimately yields multiple opportunities to innovate and improve the system along every phase, from collection to processing.

As one example, Belford pointed to the high-speed robotic arms that rely on artificial intelligence (A.I.) to capture more recyclables and are already in use in many larger recycling facilities.

Technology to replace workers

CP Group, San Diego, is an Advanced Material Recovery Facility (MRF) affiliate and one of the largest providers of electrical controls and turnkey solutions for waste management.

Bill Weeden, assistant manager of advancement material recovery for CP Group, said that the COVID-19 pandemic affected recycling, with unexpected shifts in the volume and type of materials facilities receive. For one thing, he noted, the material stream transitioned to residential sources, with less commercial waste, and online shopping trends have meant more cardboard. Overall recyclable material volume is up.

Advanced MRF has seen a trend toward building new plants to accommodate the increase in materials and the expansion of existing sites.

“That has an impact on us and it obviously has an impact on electrical contractors,” Weeden said.

For example, less than a decade ago, a large plant might have 80 motors for sorting and processing. Today, he said, the same kind of plant might have 140 motors.

“There’s a lot of growth, whether it’s retrofits or greenfields—either way, we’ve seen an uptick,” Weeden said. “That growth has been more pronounced in the West Coast, but also in places such as the Southeast, where populations are increasing.”

To process the increases in product and demand for additional separation, CP Group has been providing more equipment and technology upgrades, including sensors and optical sorters. Other advancements include devices such as auger screens, which improve sortation by separating out cardboard. They also reduce the need for manual labor and make the process safer by reducing the depth of material on the conveyor belt, so it’s easier for workers to see what they’re reaching for.

There are also innovations in infeed, mechanical separation and optical sorters, which may include A.I. that helps facilities better understand details such as the grade of plastic resin in incoming material. This functionality grows more critical as federal and state legislation around the purity of recycled material gets stricter.

Electrical contractors in play

Advanced MRF provides installation of conveyor belts, sorting equipment, staircases, structural steel and electrical systems. Advanced MRF can do PLC programming and software engineering for SCADA systems. But it also relies on ECs.

“With larger projects, we hire contractors based on where they’re licensed and what state they’re in,” Weeden said.

If a plant was built more than a decade ago, it may be using Profibus (fieldbus) cable from Siemens, which provides all the necessary functionality but lacks the capability for remote access for troubleshooting.

“There’s a lot of electronic noise in these plants,” which provides challenges for standard cable, Weeden said. 

The company leverages shielded CAT 5E cable for the bulk of communications at its installations because of its high performance in this unique environment.

Whatever the cable installation, Weeden said, “We engineer our plants to be really intuitive. Everything from changing a bearing to the way you navigate through our [human machine interface]—we make it as easy as possible.”

When the company works with ECs, he said, there are still a few problems that arise, one regarding the very basic question of grounding cable versus wire nuts.

“Each motor has its own ground wire, and there might be four other motors sharing that piece of conduit,” Weeden said. 

That’s where contractors can pull individual grounds to each motor, but the majority still favor wire nuts. That works in many environments, but not on recycling sites.

“The variable frequency drives have many diagnostic features, which rely on dedicated grounds,” he said, and plant vibration offers even more of a challenge.

It’s a distinction to be aware of, especially as the bulk of recycling facility construction may still be ahead.

Benefits of automation

Further sortation innovations help make the economics of recycling recovery more sustainable. Power sortation equipment provider AMP, Louisville, Colo., is among the companies that serve this market. AMP’s goal, said Carling Spelhaug, director of corporate communications, is to lower the cost of sorting and increase recycling capacity to levels of productivity beyond what has been historically possible. 

That, she said, “will help recycling achieve the recovery rates needed to meet recycled feedstock demand and compete with virgin materials.”

Reliance on manual sortation has held back the recycling industry, Spelhaug said. “These are difficult and dangerous jobs, and recycling facilities experience high turnover and are chronically understaffed.”

Labor is the highest cost for recyclers in an industry with tight profit margins. Automation and A.I. may help bring down costs.

“We installed our first robot in 2016, and today, our fleet of hundreds of A.I.-enabled systems spans three continents,” she said.

A.I.-powered sortation systems are flexible and can be adjusted to reflect material stream changes, commodity prices and more, she said. They can work in areas and on materials where volumes don’t warrant human labor.

“A.I. provides a notable efficiency boost when incorporated into existing facilities, but it’s even more impactful when it’s built in from the beginning at the facility level,” Spelhaug said. 

For example, the cameras that enable object detection and material harvesting in A.I.-powered facilities also support continuous waste characterization and plant monitoring. These cameras enable tracking of the quality of sorted material, observing residue and infeed compositions and detecting anomalies in performance.

“Automation in recycling drives consistency, as A.I.-driven systems can work 24/7. They don’t tire, nor do they need breaks,” she said. “We’ve seen, and expect to continue to see, companies finding ways for employees to work alongside A.I.-driven systems.” / ssstocker

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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