A recycling robot recently moved into Shakopee. And it has a craving for cartons.

A new robot at Dem-Con Companies’ recycling facility is being used to detect and remove milk containers and other cartons from the recycling stream, the first of its kind in Minnesota. Backers of the project say the technology could soon become commonplace nationwide in facilities that sort recyclables.

Dem-Con, a waste firm in Shakopee, has become a testing ground for cutting-edge robotics technology that uses artificial intelligence to sort through municipal waste.

“Robotics have been challenging in our industry because [picking] is not just a repetitive task,” said Bill Keegan, president of Dem-Con.

Though highly automated, however, such sorting facilities still rely on human “pickers” due to the unpredictable shapes and sizes of trash.

Designed by AMP Robotics, the device hangs above a fast-moving conveyor belt of containers and identifies the materials below — “metals” for a Mountain Dew can, for example.

About 60 times a minute, it spots a carton and directs a suctioning arm to vacuum it up and toss it in a nearby bin. The Carton Council of North America is a partner on the project, to help promote more carton recycling.

“Getting people to walk away from that robot is a new challenge in tours, because there is just a fascination,” said Erin Chamberlain, Dem-Con’s marketing and community outreach coordinator.

Recycling facilities like Dem-Con’s already use optical sorters to help differentiate different materials. But they are pricey and require humans to double-check their work.

Keegan said there are about 20 positions per shift at the facility, but due to regional labor shortages they sometimes can fill only 15.

“We’re looking to automation to help us with that labor shortage,” Keegan said, adding that there will always be a need for some human workers.

Boosting carton recycling

This is the second installation of AMP’s “Cortex” robot; the first was in Denver late last year. AMP founder and CEO Matanya Horowitz said the robot can achieve better accuracy than existing optical systems, since it can be trained to correct mistakes.

“We don’t really tell it what to look for,” he said. “We just show it lots of examples of these materials and we tell it, ‘This is a carton — this is a bottle — that’s a can.’ And it decides what’s going to be important.”

That means the robot could be looking at a logo, a shape, even a specific multicolored printing pattern to identify an item, Horowitz said.

As robotics technology grows more common, he said, there could be other benefits. It can help recyclers better track what material is coming in the door, and even make recycling facilities more feasible in rural areas.

The Carton Council, which represents the top carton manufacturers, is investing in the effort to help boost recycling of cartons. Until recently they weren’t widely accepted by recyclers because cartons are generally made of several materials that must be separated, like paper, plastic and aluminum.

Sixty percent of American households now have access to carton recycling, up from just 18 percent in 2009, according to the council. That means carton manufacturers can print “Please Recycle” on cartons, per Federal Trade Commission guidelines.

More information about which areas accept cartons is available at recyclecartons.com.

“In many parts of the world, they’ve been recycling this commodity for years,” said Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council. “And I think that here in the U.S. we were just a little bit late to the game.”


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