Recyclers Fire Up New Sort Line with Robots

Emmet County Recycling began operating a cutting edge sorting line October 12. The line—which features three sorting robots—processes the dual-steam program’s “Containers” stream. The county’s recycle system has been widely looked to as a model and the new sort-line project attracted national attention.

The containers stream includes paper cartons and cups; metal cans, foil and trays; glass bottles and jars; and plastic bottles, jugs, jars, tubs and trays. The materials are collected curbside and from drop-off sites in Emmet, Cheboygan and Presque Isle counties. They are all delivered to Emmet County’s Pleasantview Road Drop-off Center. In the recycle processing facility there, people and machines along the sort line separate the materials to go to seven different companies in the region, which each use one type to produce new products ranging from detergent jugs to car parts. Non-recyclable items placed in the recycling bins must be removed by the sorters and are then landfilled.

The new line replaces one installed in 2009. Ten years is a long life span for a container recycling sort line and, in addition to worn out equipment, the overhaul was necessitated by many changes over the years. Like most other employers, the recyclers have consistently had difficulty finding enough workers in the tight labor market. At the same time, containers shifted from a more easily sorted mix of metal containers, glass, and a few fairly standardized plastic items to include a wide and ever changing variety of plastics.

On the new line, glass is removed mechanically first. Then Emmet County Recycling’s sorting team removes non-recyclables and things too big for the sort line. “Items which are not recyclable make up roughly 20% of those received in the containers mix,” said Andi Shepherd Tolzdorf, director of the department. “This contamination is a big drain on the program: having our crew pick out one of every five pieces collected and then paying to landfill them.” The county is currently conducting a campaign to help the public better understand which plastic items are recyclable and which are not. A postcard was mailed in September, staff talked with customers at drop sites, and a multi-media campaign will continue through the winter.

After the garbage is removed, the recyclables pass under a magnet, which draws off the steel cans and jar lids. Then, it is the robots’ turn. They are described has having “eyes, a brain, and hands.” First, a camera “looks” at materials coming along the conveyor. The robot’s computer “brain” then rapidly matches what it sees with images of what specific recyclables look like from every angle and in a variety of conditions. The images are collected from similar recycling robots all over the world. This allows each robot to recognize the specific items it is programmed to handle. Emmet County’s robots are currently sorting

  • • aluminum foil, cans and trays;
  • • the paper cartons and cups; and
  • • three categories of plastics.

Upon recognizing items it is targeting, a robot picks them up individually with a suction cup on the end of its arm and tosses them into the correct silo. The sorting team can change what a given robot is programmed to pick by choosing from options on a computer screen. The robots are supplied by AMP Robotics.

While the county had savings in place (from depreciation) to overhaul the old line at the end of its life, when the time came, technology and markets for labor and recycled materials had changed so dramatically that a whole different design was in order. The county received grants to help with the project from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, the Carton Council, and the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation. Closed Loop Partners—an investment firm initiated by brands which need more recycled material to put into products—was also a major supporter, providing a zero-interest loan.

Some of Emmet County’s recycling guidelines are even more important with the new containers sort line in place. For example, plastic bags can get tangled in the new glass breaker, so now more than ever it is important to:

Also batteries never belong in the curbside or drop-site recycling bins. They can be recycled only at the Pleasantview Drop-off Center and at participating businesses with battery recycling buckets. If in doubt about whether an item is recyclable and, if so, where, search above.

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