Robot can sort soft plastics for recycling

Engineers at the University of Sydney are developing a robot that can sort soft plastics out of waste, simplifying recycling processes.

In Australia, 94% of soft plastics were sent to landfill in 2017-18. They can’t be recycled through kerbside bins, because recycling facilities find them too difficult to work with.

“Material recovery facilities cannot take soft plastic because it’s very hard to distinguish it from paper, and it also clogs the machinery and causes failures,” explains Branka Vucetic, a professor at the University of Sydney and director of the Centre for IoT [Internet of Things] and Telecommunications.

Vucetic and her colleagues have sought to rectify this by creating a robotic system designed to distinguish soft plastics from each other, as well as other waste.

“We worked with a factory here on the Central Coast, and developed a technology that consists of robots, 3D cameras, and IoT communications for processing information, so it would be able to initially separate soft plastics,” she says.

Professor branka vucetic, dr wanchun liu, dr wanli ouyang and professor yonghui li, who co-developed the robot.
Professor Branka Vucetic, Dr Wanchun Liu, Dr Wanli Ouyang and Professor Yonghui Li, who co-developed the robot. Credit: University of Sydney

“Later the technology will be used for automation of recycling more types of waste.”

Based at IQ Renew’s material recovering facility, the system will be integrated into a currently running recycling pilot program developed by CurbCycle. Households in the program are asked to separate their soft plastics into specially labelled bags, which are then placed in kerbside recycling bins. At the facility, the bags are taken out and will be set to the robotic system for sorting.

“They will be recognised by the robot and separated into multiple streams,” says Vucetic.

“Then they will be processed and remanufactured into oil, or indoor and outdoor furniture, for example.” This will be done by Licella, a spinoff company from the University of Sydney, which has developed a catalytic technology that can process a range of carbon-based substances back into oil.

Vucetic says that the IoT-based system required expertise from a range of different fields to develop, and the entire project took over a year to put together.

“The Internet of Things is a system which includes sensing, communication networks, AI facilities in a cloud, and robots, which are called actuators.”

Vucetic says she hopes to see the system will roll out nationally over the next few years.

“So we think that within one year the project will be fully completed at this material recovery facility that we are working with, and then the plan is that over three years, that it would be deployed nationally.”

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