Guest blog: The future of recycling is robotic, but how?

Guest blogger Antonis Mavropoulos is the President of International Solid Waste Association ISWA and founder and CEO of D-Waste. Antonis shares his personal insights on how social and technological innovation can reshape the recycling and waste management industry in his blog

We have just started to discuss and to understand what will be the potential impacts of the rise of robots in our lives and societies. But, the pace of change is too fast and very soon we will have to deal with real consequences rather than potential ones. As I use to say in my lectures: “Fasten your seat belts, the fourth industrial revolution is already here and disruption is the rule, not the exception”.

In manufacturing, it is obvious that circular economy is absolutely dependent on robots and their precision, efficiency and endless optimization. I could easily say that circular economy in manufacturing will either be robotic or it will never realize at all. But, this is not that obvious in waste management, although it should be.

Commercial robots are already present in waste management and recycling, but the industry seems to ignore or underestimate their importance as well as their role as disruptors.

Wall-E, the small waste disposal robot that re-arranged garbage piles in the 2008 Disney movie, is already outdated.

We already have robots capable of separating materials much more efficiently than any worker. Powered by machine learning and the rapid evolution of sensors, the efficiency of separation will soon become unimaginable for certain materials. Robots are already used to dismantle mobile phones and tablets to hundreds of pieces, perhaps highlighting the end of certain types of e-waste.

Driverless waste compactors that manage landfills and work all night long are being tested. Autonomous road cleaning robots have been operational for several years, although the robots are not widely available commercially. Robotic waste collection is on the way. Imagine the impact when it will be combined with driverless garbage trucks or unmanned small vehicles for door-to-door collection. Robotic household assistants for people in need are already being tested and part of their job is to bring the garbage to bins.

How about exoskeletons that will make waste collection as easy as playing with a joystick? How about household robotic waste bins, capable of separating materials at their source? How about robots that will stimulate reuse and repair for selected products and material streams? How about robotic kitchens that will minimize food waste? Why not robotic waste treatment on a household or apartment building level? How far are we from plastic recycling robots equipped with 3D printers, capable of producing new products and realizing closed loops for certain plastics?

Robots and driverless cars, powered by artificial intelligence and sensors, are already redefining the waste management and recycling industry.

The more I am trying to understand their benefits and the risks involved, the more I realize that those brilliant technological advances are raising a very old, difficult question. Robots will determine the future of manufacturing and waste management according the problems we will ask them to resolve. If we ask them to support circular economy and a better planet for everyone, they will do it and a wasteless future will be realistic. If we ask them to support the business as usual and the current fast production – fast consumption linear economy, they will do it and a much more wasteful world will be created.

If we use them to improve the quality of working conditions, replacing or eliminating hard work, health – safety risks and inefficient labor, they will deliver a better working environment, a more healthy life and maybe more time for leisure. If we use them to trade labor for profits, creating a jobless future for millions of people, they will deliver a social nightmare. The option is still open and the choices ahead concern all of us.