If Robots Could Recycle: How Technology Innovation Can Help Solve Plastic Pollution

Global plastics production has increased from 225 million metric tons in 2014 to 335 metric tons in 2016: only about 16% of this is recycled. The other 84% is either dumped into landfill or makes its way into the ecosystem, causing a tremendous amount of pollution. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight). The Great Pacific Garbage patch, 99.9% of which is plastic, covers an area three times the size of Spain.

Images of turtles with straws in their noses and dead whales with almost 90 lbs of plastic in their stomach have drawn attention to several problems: how to prevent plastic from entering the ocean and how we can recover and recycle the plastics we have. National Geographic keeps a running list of actions around the world to stop plastics from getting into the ocean. As for recycling what we have, the good news is investments in recycling and waste technologies reached a five-year record high in 2018, and there many opportunities for corporations to collaborate with innovative solutions.


Recycling and waste global market activity

New recycling processes

Plastic is a valuable material; $80-120 billion is lost annually from discarding plastic packaging after first use. One study estimates that new and profitable plastics recycling businesses could represent a global profit pool of $55 billion by 2030. In addition, the PET and polyester industry represents another $130 billion addressable market for recycled plastics. Producing recycled plastic reduces energy consumption by 87% compared to making new plastics.

Outdated and unsustainable recycling and reuse methods have not been working. Recycling innovation is occurring in several key areas: automation and robotics in mechanical processes and new chemical recycling processes.

Mechanical recycling

Mechanical recycling involves physically processing plastic down to resin pellets, leaving the polymer chain intact. This process involves grinding, washing, separation, drying, re-granulating, and compounding the plastic. Some of the challenges with mechanical recycling are maintaining the integrity of the plastic, limited solutions for contaminated waste streams (curbside and post-consumer waste), a limited range of plastic types that can be recycled, and a lack of solutions for additives and dyes.

Opportunity – Scaling through Automation

Historically, plastics sorting has been done manually; the next generation is artificial intelligence-powered robotic automation. This technology can identify types of polymers with accuracy close to that of a human at lower costs and greater speeds. This produces high purity output at lower costs. In addition, mechanical recycling is a dirty and dangerous industry, making it a prime target for robotic automation.

the impact of robotics on the recycling and waste sector.
Image courtesy of CNN.

AMP Robotics, ZenRobotics and Waste Robotics are developing AI-powered robots to sort through waste streams more efficiently and at a lower cost than humans. AMP Robotics’ sorting and picking system can complete 80 picks per minute and the equivalent of 3 human shifts per day. AMP recently partnered with Ryohshin to develop industrial automation for construction and demolition recycling. Waste Robotics promises a 300% productivity increase and recently received funding from the Canadian government to commercialize the technology. ZenRobotics announced partnerships with Skrotfrag, Spross, Ferrovial, Lundstams, Sogetri, and Zanker Recycling in 2018-2019 to deploy ZenRobotics’ recycling technology. These emerging technologies seek to produce a higher volume of quality recycled plastics; competitive with conventional plastics.

Chemical recycling

Chemical recycling, or monomer recycling, involves chemical processes that break polymers down to monomers with resulting sold into virgin plastic production markets, by breaking down the polymer chains to hydrocarbon fractions using either catalytic or thermal processing. This method has some advantages over mechanical recycling, as it can better deal with contaminated waste streams, additives, and dyes and produces the chemical building blocks of polymers, which can be used and recycled an infinite number of times without downgrading the recycled product.

Opportunity – Reducing Costs and Increasing Efficiency through Innovative Processes

The primary new chemical recycling process under development is thermal pyrolysis, which is the decomposition of materials using high temperatures. Although thermal pyrolysis can effectively deal with contaminated, mixed-waste streams, it requires a significant energy input to reach the required temperatures, resulting in process inefficiencies. An alternative to thermal pyrolysis is catalytic pyrolysis, which uses a catalyst, rather than heat, to break down polymers. Although this technique produces a higher quality liquid output than thermal pyrolysis, it is still costly and requires a high energy demand.

Loop Industries has developed a chemical recycling process that can produce high-purity, food-grade PET plastic from a wide range of waste plastic, including mixed and contaminated post-consumer streams. The depolymerization technology uses zero energy inputs, making it much more efficient than typical pyrolysis or catalyst technologies. Loop’s technology produces PET monomers (Dimethyl Terepthalate and Mono Ethylene Glycol) for use as virgin feedstock at costs competitive with fossil-derived feedstock. The technology’s advantages over pyrolysis and economic attractiveness have allowed Loop to develop partnerships with global corporations such as PepsiCo., Danone/Evian, L’Oreal, Nestle, Gatorade, Indorama, Thysenkrupp, and Coca Cola, all which have occurred in the past two years.

Agilyx has developed a chemical recycling process to transform hard-to-recycle and low-quality plastics waste, which represent 75% of waste plastic, into a refinery-grade crude oil feedstock for new products and a first-of-its-kind technology to break down polystyrene, which is used in Styrofoam, into styrene monomer. Since 2012, Agilyx has partnered with Therma-Flite, INEOS Styrolution, Americas Styrenics (AmSty), and Monroe Energy to deploy its technology. In addition, Agilyx’s technology is beginning to reach commercial scale with last year’s opening of the world’s first commercial waste Polystyrene-to-Styrene Oil chemical recycling plant.

 Where is the industry headed next?

Although these technologies and partnerships are promising, recycling innovation is still in its infancy and will require stakeholder participation along the entire value chain, from consumers to collectors to end-users of recycled plastics. As recycling technology develops and is better able to handle a large variety and volume of plastics waste, more innovation will necessary in collection and sorting to ensure that all discarded plastics make their way into the recycling process. In addition, new alternative plastics materials will help ensure that the materials inevitably leaking from the system will quickly biodegrade, rather than wreaking environmental havoc for centuries.

For more insight on the technologies transforming the sector, join us in Stockholm on 21-23 May for our session on chemistry and the circular economy.