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Intelligent machines can sort different materials: a solution that could revolutionise the recycling sector.
The fourth law of robotics? Do waste sorting. Isaac Asimov would have added one more point to his famous robot laws if only he could have foreseen the developments of the circular economy. Robots are proving to be way more efficient than humans in the collection and sorting of materials to be recycled and could eventually replace human workers completely. The first step in this direction was taken by the Spanish company Sadako Technologies, which has reprogrammed some robots to relocate them in the recycling chain.
By teaching the machines to recognize valuable materials, the company intends to reduce waste sorting costs by over 50%, completely transforming this sector’s economy. Robots enjoy dirty, boring, dangerous tasks. They don’t mind spending the whole day on a conveyor belt, they don’t risk to be injured by syringes thrown in the garbage bag with everything else. This way, machines seem to be perfect for recycling, and over the next few years they could dominate the sector, with considerable benefits for the recycling business, the local authorities and the taxpayers.
Sadako robots use a compressed air aspiration system to lift off materials from the conveyor belt. They have already been installed in two plants near Barcelona and will soon be operational in one more facility. According to the company, it takes about one year for the facilities to reabsorb the cost of the machines.
“We started on this path because in many treatment facilities some materials were dumped without being recycled – explains Eugenio Garnica, the founder of Sadako – Traditional machines were not cost effective for some material flows, and the value of the recovered material in some cases was lower than the salary of the staff working on it.”
Robots are already being used in several fields, like the automotive and food sectors. Sadako’s challenge is to apply the machines’ artificial intelligence to the sorting of waste, so that they are able to discern case by case what can be recycled. This is why the programming of the robots included several hours of exposure to the conveyor belt, so that they can start learning the characteristics of each product to decide what should or shouldn’t be taken.