This Bot Might Be The Way To Save Recycling

Recycling is on paper at least, a wonderful thing. Taking waste and converting it into new usable material is generally more efficient than digging up more raw materials. Unfortunately though, sorting this waste material is a labor-intensive process. With China implementing bans on waste imports, suddenly the world is finding it difficult to find anywhere to accept its waste for reprocessing. In an attempt to help solve this problem, MIT’s CSAIL group have developed a recycling robot.

The robot aims to reduce the reliance on human sorters and thus improve the viability of recycling operations. This is achieved through a novel approach of using special actuators that sort by material stiffness and conductivity. The actuators are known as handed shearing auxetics – a type of actuator that expands in width when stretched. By having two of these oppose each other, they can grip a variety of objects without having to worry about orientation or grip strength like conventional rigid grippers. With pressure sensors to determine how much a material squishes, and a capacitive sensor to determine conductivity, it’s possible to sort materials into paper, plastic, and metal bins.

The research paper outlines the development of the gripper in detail. Care was taken to build something that is robust enough to deal with the recycling environment, as well as capable of handling the sorting tasks. There’s a long way to go to take this proof of concept to the commercially viable stage, but it’s a promising start to a difficult resource problem.

MIT’s CSAIL is a hotbed of interesting projects, developing everything from visual microphones to camoflauge for image recognition systems. Video after the break.


24 thoughts on “This Bot Might Be The Way To Save Recycling

    1. I agree, jobs are probably going to be on the line for this kind of person in the future, even without something like this thing out there, but . . . expensive toy for neckbeards!?

      Really!? It’s a research project which goes a bit further than the stated intended application, eg. novel ways of detecting object type and materials, etc.

    2. And yet the volume of material needing sorting vastly outweighs the available capacity… these robots could easily work in concert with humans, the robots grabbing 90% of the easy pickings and the humans handling the harder-to-classify stuff.

      I don’t think we’ll run out of rubbish any time soon.

  1. Wonder if the printed parts for the robot, with recycled plastic…
    Although recycling is a fine dream, it’s mostly a scam, with all the people looking to squeeze a profit, the materials recovered, aren’t really cheaper than virgin raw. China was a great trash dump, millions of little hands, happy to work all day, for a bowl of rice. The recovered materials just went back into manufacturing cheap consumer products, that would soon be shipped back for re-processing.

    A better way to tackle the waste problem, is to stop making it in the first place. It’s not that difficult or time consuming to clean and sanitize, but we like single use, single serving convenience. I drink coffee black, but those who defile it, don’t put in one sugar packet, or one creamer, but several. Wonder why they even bother with the coffee. Diapers, I’m sure there is a number, but I’m sure it several thousand soiled diapers per baby, each year they wear them. Bottled water… It’s filtered tap water, nothing special, not even that much different then most folks get out of their own tap these days. There are places, and circumstances, where bottled water is needed, but single serving size?

    There aren’t many things made, entirely from recycled materials. There is a certain percentage of material, where it needs to be labeled as such, but the bulk came from raw materials. It’s used to sort of a filler or extender, likely some government subsidy involved. Too many contaminants, impurities, inconsistencies, to run full recycled. Suppose the filament you use in your printer was 100% from drink bottles, or any other common household trash. Do you think your nozzle will be constantly clogged? Have to constantly fiddle with settings, just to finish a print? Will you get it dialed in, before that spool runs out, and you get to start all over, with a new, mystery spool?

    Basically, we generate more trash, than we are ever going to recover and reuse. Reducing landfill is a nice, pipe dream, but just isn’t happening. We just find more ways to fill the hole…

    1. bottled water has to be the biggest scam of all. next is packaged products inside of packaged products. (cereal bags inside of cardboard boxes for example) the packaging industry has given us both good and bad examples and tons of waste all in the name of “freshness” and theft prevention. batteries for electric tools(i wish they would settle on a standard voltage instead of a half dozen voltages and connection interfaces. have you ever looked at a list of the different type of electrical plugs, a ton of shapes and sizes. i think the best quote on this is, what’s so good about standards is that there are so many

    2. It’s not only a scam from landfill usage either. Calculate the energy used to collect, transport, sort, and then is required to even get a percentage of the used material back as usable 2nd hand material. The diaper situation…. until 1 yr old you are looking at 12-24 diapers a day, after the 1st year about 8-12 diapers a day. (source, I am a dad with an 18 month old). The problem and excuse for using disposable diapers over re-usable is the cost of doing that much inefficient light loads a week or letting the diapers soak in bodily waste before washing them. Add in the pure cost of baby detergent for the baby laundry only.

  2. Clever concept. Would be interesting to see if it works with dirty, crumpled, and not neatly positioned items on a real recycling conveyor.
    Also it seems oblivious to the plastic lid on the paper Starbucks cup.

    It’s much easier to sort waste where it’s generated. It’s easy to put paper in one bin, plastic in another, and metal in a third.

      1. It is detecting metal by “sensing it’s conductivity”. I see this method being very problematic. There are many situations where the metal will be covered in an insulating material

    1. Yes sorting where the waste is generated is a crucial step in lowering the cost of recycling by a lot.

      Here in Sweden where I live everything is typically sorted into:
      Cartons, corrugated paper, and similar.
      Paper. (excluding envelopes due to the glue, so mostly white paper.)
      Colored glass
      Metal (easy to separate with magnets and gravity filtration and such)
      Batteries (small batteries. It is after all usually a small container, that sometimes is full to the brim…)

      Then at the larger recycling facilities there is room for:
      Chemicals/oils/paints (One leaves the bottles/containers/buckets, the sorting is done by employees, I have no clue to what standard…)
      Electronics (Usually separated depending on type, so fridges, TV/screens, computers and other large stuff is separate from the small trinkets.)
      Wood (logs, construction waste, etc (ie “clean” large pieces of wood (typically made into Particleboard and the like)))
      Furniture (If intact and “clean”, it gets taken to second hand stores usually. (though, some likely returns back.))
      Batteries (all types of batteries. (there is usually a forklift around if needed.))
      Metal (Sometimes sorted into type.)
      Incinerate-able waste. (Some stuff after all can’t really be recycled. And some stuff is just more useful as fuel for the municipality heating system. (Yes, incinerators produce a lot of heat, its rather nice during the winter.))

      Then the list continues…

      And most of this sorting is done by the very people leaving the stuff at the recycling facility. So it might not always be done all that optimally.

      In the end, Sweden doesn’t really export any waste. (Though, we do for some stupid reason pay our neighbors for taking their trash…)

  3. Recycling is on paper at least, a wonderful thing. Taking waste and converting it into new usable material is generally more efficient than digging up more raw materials

    Show us the paper then. On what scale is a wonderful thing?

    How are you defining efficient? Glass recycling is efficient?

    If the first two sentences were true, the refuse wouldn’t be sent 8000 miles away and there would be no recycling problem.

    1. It’s been sent to China because it was free to do so – Chinese companies were happy to take it and could process it cheaply (or dump it cheaply, in some cases). Lower H&S standards may have helped keep prices low, but so does the lower cost of living. The transport was free, because China is a net exporter by volume, so all the container ships were otherwise going back empty.
      Hence it went there because it was cheapest, and recycling plants in the west couldn’t compete.

    1. Someone tell Miss Finland not to put her fingers through the mesh.

      That video has a real Futurama feel. I want to see everything that is sorted go down chutes where it all gets mixed together, goes into trucks, and then to the landfill. Except some metals that are turned into Bender Christmas ornaments by children chained to work benches.

  4. I recognize just how groundbreaking and difficult this really is. Having said that…
    I understand that currently they use magnets separate all metals from the waste stream.
    Using an arm instead seems like a massive waste of time and electricity in comparison.

  5. This bot is NOT the way to save recycling.
    The biggest problem with recycling is people putting contaminated items in the recycling bins and this bot does nothing to address that problem…

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