Recycling robot being developed to sort out soft plastics

Tuesday, 27 July, 2021

Recycling robot being developed to sort out soft plastics

Soft plastics lack adequate recycling methods as they can easily entangle in waste separation machinery, leading to mechanical failure and contamination of other recyclable materials such as paper. Because of this problem, current recycling methods rely on the manual sorting of soft plastics, an often repetitive and unsafe task.

Working alongside industry partners as part of a federal government Cooperative Research Centre Project grant, researchers from the Centre for Internet of Things (IoT) and Telecommunications at the University of Sydney are developing a new method to increase recycling of soft plastics — by creating a smart, automated robotic system that uses robotics and AI to sort recyclable waste.

The researchers are working with waste management companies, IQRenew and CurbCycle, technology developers Licella, Mike Ritchie and Associates, and Resource Recovery Design to develop the system. The research team includes Professor Branka Vucetic, Professor Yonghui Li, Associate Professor Wanli Ouyang, Dr Wanchun Liu and Senior Technical Officer Dawei Tan from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering.

“The recycling robotic automation system will use artificial intelligence and computer vision to learn how to identify different forms of recycling waste, effectively learning how to ‘see’ and ‘sort’ waste, to create separate waste streams and maintain soft plastics’ purity so they can be recycled,” said IoT expert Professor Branka Vucetic.

The recycling robot. Image credit: University of Sydney

The system will be integrated into IQ Renew’s material recovery facility as part of CurbCycle’s soft plastic recovery program, an Australian initiative that involves the household collection of recyclables that are segregated into bags prior to placing them into their kerbside recycling bin.

“Not only does our project divert household soft plastics from going to landfill; by creating a solution for the collection and sorting of waste with our industry and research partners, we’re also creating a sustainable supply chain that takes rubbish from households to end markets,” Associate Professor Wanli Ouyang said.

“The robot will identify ‘CurbyTagged’ bags and differentiate sources of plastic, separating soft plastics from the fully co-mingled recyclables,” he said.

After being separated from other waste, the soft plastics will be used for various purposes, including advanced recycling into oils and other valuable chemicals using patented Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor technology (Cat-HTR) created by Licella Holdings.

Image credit: ©

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