OP-ED – Robots and artificial intelligence promise to improve the way we sort and recover waste. This will not be enough, however: we must also rethink the way we produce and consume.
On 18 January 2019, the French government signed the “Waste Transformation and Recovery” industry contract, which makes digital, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies a cornerstone of the industry’s global competitiveness.
In France, according to the Federation of French Recycling Companies (FEDEREC), sales in the sector – which employs 28,000 people, 76 % of whom are unskilled workers and laborers – reached €9 billion in 2017. Manual waste sorting workers, who often come from vocational retraining programs, carry out a number of repetitive tasks in environments that expose them to substances of all types.
Alongside this, China’s recent ban on imports of foreign waste and recycled materials is impacting export markets and encouraging the industry to reorganize its activity with a view to higher quality and more advanced local collection, sorting and recovery networks.
Several companies now offer dedicated technological solutions. Norwegian firm Tomra has rolled out its “reverse vending machines” for waste collection as well as innovative sensors for sorting. In the United States, AMP Robotics has developed Neuron, an AI software solution for perception that powers Cortex, the firm’s autonomous robotic handling system. Another US firm, BHS, offers Max. AI, which combines deep learning and robotics technologies to sort certain materials faster than humans can. As well, Finland’s ZenRobotics has unveiled a waste analysis tool paired with a range of sorting robots. Other solutions are already on the market or on the way.
The industry is counting on technological innovations in the fields of waste collection traceability, artificial vision to recognize various types of waste and materials, gripping solutions and remote operation for greater productivity and less strenuous work processes. It requires “agile” systems to adapt to new materials coming onto the market.
Nonetheless, having the most advanced sorting and recycling technologies will simply not be enough. To truly reduce the level of waste we create, our systems for manufacturing goods (whether new, used or recycled) and the logistics networks they operate with must shift towards a circular economy approach. Beyond this, the ultimate goal be a systemic transformation. This involves adapting our lifestyles with respect to nature, to the way our society is organized, and to the economic and political situation in our local areas, with the aim of achieving a sustainable overall balance.
Catherine Simon is a consultant and expert on robotics
Catherine Simon / 07/02/2019