Engineering researchers are developing a unique way to improve the recycling of soft plastics by creating a smart robot that can identify, sort and separate different types of recyclable waste.
Despite an improvement in plastic recycling in recent years, landfill is a growing problem. Soft plastics like cling film and plastic bags are major contributors to the problem, with 94 percent ending up in landfills in 2016-17.
Soft plastics lack proper recycling methods because they are easily caught in waste separation machines, resulting in mechanical failure and contamination of other recyclable materials such as paper. Because of this problem, current recycling practices rely on the manual sorting of soft plastics, an often repetitive and unsafe task.
In cooperation with industrial partners as part of a project grant from the Federal Government’s Cooperative Research Center, researchers from the Center for Internet of Things (IoT) and telecommunications at the University of Sydney are developing a unique method to increase the recycling of soft plastics – by creating an intelligent, automated robot system using an AI to sort recyclable waste.
The team includes Prof. Branka Vucetic, Prof. Yonghui Li, Associate Professor Wanli Ouyang, Dr. Wanchun Liu and Senior Technical Officer Dawei Tan from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering.
“The automated recycling robot automation system will use artificial intelligence and computer vision to learn how to identify different forms of recycling waste, effectively learn how to ‘see’ and ‘sort’ waste, create separate waste streams and purity can be maintained by soft plastics, ”says IoT expert Prof. Vucetic.
“Soft plastics make a huge contribution to landfills and have long posed a challenge to the circular economy and waste management because they lack an appropriate and safe method of sorting. Using the latest IoT techniques, we have developed a bespoke robot to solve this problem, ”said Prof. Yonghui Li.
“Between 2018 and 2019, Australia generated 2.5 million tons of plastic waste, including soft plastic: only nine percent was recycled, while 84 percent ended up in landfills. Our goal is to drastically change these percentages by developing a solution that can recycle most of the soft plastic waste, ”said Dr. Wanchun Liu.
The researchers are working with waste management companies IQRenew and CurbCycle, technology developers Licella, Mike Ritchie and Associates, and Resource Recovery Design to develop the system.
The system will be integrated with IQ Renew’s material recovery facility as part of CurbCycle’s soft plastic recovery program, an Australian initiative that involves the household collection of recyclables, which are separated into sacks before being placed in the roadside recycling bin.
“Our project not only prevents soft plastics from households ending up in landfills; By developing a solution for the collection and sorting of waste with our industrial and research partners, we are also creating a sustainable supply chain that transports the waste from households to end markets, ”said Associate Professor Wanli Ouyang.
“The robot will identify ‘CurbyTagged’ bags and differentiate plastic sources by separating soft plastics from the fully mixed recyclables,” he said.
Once separated from other waste, the soft plastics are used for a variety of purposes including advanced recycling into oils and other valuable chemicals using Licella Holdings’ patented Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTR ™) technology. Licella was founded by Prof. Thomas Maschmeyer from the Philosophical Faculty together with Licella CEO Dr. Len Humphreys and has been sponsored by the University of Sydney for 14 years.
“This highly innovative material flow process can help expand the spectrum of Cat HTR conversion technology to increasingly sophisticated waste streams, which underscores the advantages of close industrial and academic cooperation,” said Prof. Maschmeyer.
The researchers received $ 2,999,220 under a CRC-P grant from the Australian federal government.
Prof. Thomas Maschmeyer from the chemistry department at the university works as Principal Technology Consultant at Licella.