IT Transformation

Can Robotics and the Cloud Rescue Our Recycling Industry?

Editor’s note: This blog originally appeared on the Dell Technologies Perspectives blog and can be found here.

By Stephanie Walden

The novel coronavirus has had a chaotic impact on humanity’s carbon footprint. Transportation-related emissions are down, while home energy usage is likely to go up. With offices, restaurants, and other businesses temporarily shuttered, commercial garbage production in the United States has fallen dramatically—but in the wake of dozens of shelter-in-place mandates, residential waste has risen by as much as 30 percent.

In most places, waste and recycling companies have been deemed “essential,” meaning that frontline employees like curbside collectors continue to make their daily rounds. But many of these employees have expressed concern for their safety. In New York City alone, hundreds of sanitation workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and at the time of publication, at least one has died.

For sorters—people who manually pluck through waste streams on conveyor belts at materials recovery/reclamation facilities (MRFs)—concerns about exposure to infectious disease are an added worry on top of already-challenging conditions. Waste sorters at MRFs often stand shoulder to shoulder and are at risk of coming into contact with tainted packaging—issues that existed long before coronavirus was part of the global vernacular.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, refuse and recyclable materials collection is one of the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S. According to Glassdoor, the median annual salary for waste sorters hovers around $24,000. These jobs tend to have high rates of turnover and are often performed by incarcerated labor.

Even in pre-pandemic times, robotics were already being used to improve safety at waste sorting centers. AMP Robotics, a company that develops artificial intelligence (AI)-infused products that aid in recycling processes, has systems deployed all over the U.S., as well as in international markets like Europe. Today, their recycling robotics technology is seeing an unprecedented boost—one that may stick around even after the threat of COVID-19 dissipates.


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