New sorting technology can help overcome recycling business disruptions

Automation and technology advances 

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. In times of social and business disruptions, people find ways to overcome the challenge. We are seeing this play out with the coronavirus pandemic. Displaced students are learning virtually,quarantined citizens are finding virtual ways to stay connected and “nonessential”workers are keeping business running through work-at-home initiatives.  

The waste and recycling industries face the compounded issue of material and labor shortage trends for the foreseeable future. Recycling operations must make the most with the material they receive,with fewer workers. “Advancements have been made insorting circuit automation at bothfront and back ends, which have helped recycling operations decrease the number of manual sorters while increasing material purity,” mentions Fabrizio Radice, Head of Global Sales and Marketing TOMRA Sorting Recycling.

China National Sword in 2017 started the innovation engine for plant builders and manufacturers of equipment used at MRFs and metal recycling yards. Before National Sword, recycled product with up to 10 percent impurities was acceptable. After, impurity content of no more than 0.05 percent was mandated, and other countries eventually followed China’s lead. 

“The industry has grown from material recovery to recycled product refining,” says Eric Thurston, Sales Manager Metalsfor TOMRA Sorting Recycling. “Companies wantthe sorting circuit to do the majority of the work, so they can redirect manual sorters to better utilize the talents.” 

Equipment automation is helping to deliver better separation of mixed materials at the front end of the recycling circuit. The expanded use of more advanced front-end screening and separating equipment is helping to better classify paper, containers, glass and metals, based on size, color, density and ballistic properties. “The better the separation at the front end, the more efficient the back-end sorting will be, and the fewer manual sorters will be required,” comments Thurston. 

On the circuit’s back end, where material is sorted into final products, significant improvements in equipment technologies are helping to reduce the number of manual sorters required for final product quality. Newer laser technologies introduced over the last three years make it possible to remove more impurities from metal and paper products. Sensor improvements now enable optical sorters to pick out fine molecular differences in PET and paper materials to get a cleaner product sort. 

“By taking a systems-thinking approach to the entire circuit and upgrading both the front and back ends,” says Nick Doyle, Recycling Area Sales Manager,West North America for TOMRA Sorting Recycling, “we are helping MRF operators significantly decrease their manual sorter count, in some cases by 50 percent or more. This is not only beneficial in current times with the coronavirus pandemic, it better utilizes worker talents and saves operators substantial sums of money annually.” 

Digital trends

Today, more of the recycling circuit’s components can be networked together to further advance efficiencies. Sorting machines cancapture operating data, such as when the circuit is running, duration, output and service alerts, that can be accessed remotely via an Internet connection. This allows managers to employ fact-based decision making about the equipment and circuit, improve operating efficiency and increase sorting accuracy.

More available data combined with significantly improved computing capabilities has expanded the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in sorting equipment to help recycling operations solve much more complex sorting problems than in the past. Robotic sorters and sensor-based sorting equipment are now integrated withadvanced machine learning capabilities to recognize patterns in the waste stream and make a smarter sort. Doyle suggests that operators consider pairing advanced optical reducing sorters with robots using AI to help boost quality, while the need of manual sorters. 

As a final consideration as to whether a circuit should be upgraded to improve sorting accuracy, Doyleoffers, “If it hasn’t been upgraded within the last three years, it may not be as efficient as possible,and a company might beusingmore manual sorters than necessary. Investing in the circuit now,when volume and labor availability are down,can help to reduce the impact on the business and pay dividends when the business rebounds to pre-pandemic levels.”