This robot can sort recycling by giving it a squeeze

The robot, called RoCycle, uses pincers to pick through garbage and identify what materials each bit contains. It could help reduce how much waste gets sent to landfill.

Image of recycling robot sorting various items into bins
JASON DORFMAN, MIT CSAIL

Greasy pizza box, takeaway coffee cup, plastic yogurt pot—are they trash or recycling? What can and can’t be recycled is often confusing, not least because the answer depends on the facilities at your local waste processing plant. In many plants, grease-soaked cardboard or cups lined with polyethylene cannot be recycled and thus head for landfill—often taking a batch of other recycling with them.

One US waste processing company has reported that 25% of all recycling it receives is so contaminated it must be sent straight to landfills. Meanwhile, the amount of household waste rejected for recycling in England increased by 84% between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015, according to government figures. And it’s about to get worse. Much of the world’s waste is sold to China for recycling. But last month China introduced stricter standards for the amount of contamination it will accept: anything more that 0.5% impure will go in the ground.

That’s why the way we sort waste needs to get much better. Many large recycling centers already use magnets to pull out metals, and air filters to separate paper from heavier plastics. Even so, most sorting is still done by hand. It’s dirty and dangerous work.

So Lillian Chin and her colleagues at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT have developed a robot arm with soft grippers that picks up objects from a conveyor belt and identifies what they are made from by touch. MORE

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