Are robots the future of recycling?

Robots are reimagining the recycling industry, in the form of something called "The Cortex."

It's made by a company called AMP Robotics, whose goal is to improve how all that stuff we throw into our recycle bins gets sorted and ultimately sent off for a second or third life.

"For the first time you can have these systems able to identify things out in the real world with really the same levels of performance as a person," said AMP's CEO Dr. Matanya Horowitz.

Historically people have stood along conveyor belts in recycling plants, separating our cans from our cartons and pulling out stuff that never should have been tossed in the blue bin to begin with, something Matanya says is an unpleasant and occasionally dangerous job. That's where the robot comes in.

"What we've done is developed a series of algorithms that let us teach these systems over time what each individual item looks like," he explained. "It's learned to look for things like logos, different textures, different shapes...this is a lot of the same technology that's being used in autonomous cars, some stuff with drones, facial recognition."


The expansion of robotics in recycling comes at a time when the industry as a whole has undergone a reckoning after China stopped buying most recycled materials from the U.S. two years ago because of new purity standards. Many municipalities and private haulers saw recyclables pile up, with no market to sell them to. Horowitz says the new technology has helped.

"We can help these facilities actually produce higher quality stuff," he said.

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AMP's robots have fanned out across the world and are in about 40 different recycling facilities across the country, including one in Jersey City.

"It's definitely becoming more prevalent," said Megan Smalley, managing editor of the trade publication Recycling Today.

"A lot of recyclers and the manufactures both attest it helps with staff shortages," she said. "Robots can pick just as fast as human sorters, if not faster."

But the model of bringing in more robots to a facility begs the question, will the technology take jobs away from people?

"I would be pretty confident our robots haven't taken any jobs, even though we are getting wider and wider deployments, the issue is so many facilities are run understaffed to begin with, they're just saying 'hey I'm so grateful I can just fully staff my facility," Horowitz said.

The technology comes at a cost., averaging around 6 to 7000 dollars a month to lease according to Horowitz. And that's part of the reason why robots are still not widespread in the recycling world.

"They're talking about this technology," Smalley said, "I wouldn't say the majority have applied this technology yet though, part of that is the cost, and it's not a solution that fits every recycling facility."

Recycling robots, like humans, aren't perfect, and the technology is still very much a work in progress. But as artificial intelligence gets more precise and customizable, it could one day reshape this industry.