This week’s Industry Voices features questions and answers with Carling Spelhaug, senior public relations and communications manager at AMP Robotics™.  Broomfield, Colo.-based AMP is modernizing the world’s recycling infrastructure by applying artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to increase recycling rates and economically recover recyclables reclaimed as raw materials for the global supply chain. AMP’s technology recovers recyclables from municipal collection, precious materials from electronics, high-value materials from construction and demolition, and valuable material from organic material.

Q: How does AI and robotics help protect natural resources?

Spelhaug: AI and robotics technology improves the economics and efficiency of recycling. By lowering the cost of sorting, our technology makes it easier to recover high-value materials so they can serve another productive life in the economy. This process produces greater volumes of high-quality recycled content that can be made into new packaging, reducing the need to mine, drill, and pursue other harmful environmental practices used to harvest raw materials.

The cost of sorting erodes that value and creates a disincentive for recovering materials. If you reduce the cost of sorting, the economics of recovery become sustainable and a natural incentive to capture paper, plastics, and metals emerges. Our technology is both lowering the cost of sorting and increasing recycling capacity to levels of productivity beyond what has been historically possible, which we believe will help recycling achieve the recovery rates needed to meet recycled materials demand and compete with non-recycled materials.

Q: How does your side of the industry help reduce carbon emissions?

Spelhaug: Extracting natural resources for all the things we consume accounts for half of global greenhouse gas emissions; recycling helps preserve energy and lower carbon emissions. Since inception, AMP’s technology has saved nearly 5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, an impact equivalent to removing more than 1 million cars from the roads. With our application of AI, robotics, and data capture, we’re aiming to boost recycling rates, along with the emissions impact.

Q: What are some of the innovations that you’re working on to reduce waste?

Spelhaug: One of our newest innovations is AMP Vortex, an AI-powered automation solution designed to improve the recovery of film and flexible packaging. This first-of-its-kind innovation for materials recovery facilities (MRFs) aims to tackle the persistent challenge of film contamination.

A mere 1 percent of U.S. households have curbside access for recycling film and flexible packaging today, estimates The Recycling Partnership. Yet film and flexibles comprise the fast-growing and second-largest valued packaging segment, behind only corrugated containers and ahead of bottles and other rigid plastic packaging. Close to 95 pounds of these materials, including grocery and storage bags, pouches, and wrappers, are found in the average U.S. home each year.

The recycled materials industry lacks infrastructure for the identification and separation of film and flexible packaging, and these materials jam MRF equipment not designed to manage it. Even 2–3% film in overall MRF streams can be unmanageable to remove manually, often damaging equipment, necessitating downtime, and hindering recovery of recyclables. Film and flexible packaging find their way into every line in a MRF, resulting in high levels of contamination. But most of these materials, given their light weights, make their way onto fiber lines. Film contamination degrades fiber bale purity, leading to revenue loss or the need for additional post-handling downstream.

Because these materials are complicated and expensive to reclaim into raw materials, end markets for film and flexible packaging have been limited. While flexible packaging has been almost uniformly single-use, major brands continue to make commitments to use more recycled content in their products, and several states have recently adopted laws aimed at ramping up the use of post-consumer resin in plastic products and packaging. We’re developing Vortex to target and recover film and flexible packaging for baling and selling, which will ultimately reduce the waste generated by these materials.

Q: Does AMP reach out to students to inspire them to careers in recycling or AI?

Spelhaug: Some of our earliest employees started as interns and grew into long-term careers at AMP. We regularly field requests from and lend support to students at many points in their educational journeys working on projects related to waste, recycling, and advanced technology. Many of our employees also volunteer with local robotics programs, from coaching and mentoring teams and helping to foster the next generation of engineering talent to judging special events.

AMP is also very active on the speaking circuit. Be sure to catch Amanda Marrs, our senior director of product, at ISRI2023. One of the panels she’s speaking on, “Opportunities Abound: How to Attract Talent Through STEM Careers in Recycling” will explore how to showcase and attract great talent to careers in recycling, artificial intelligence, sustainability, and beyond.

Photo courtesy of AMP Robotics. Caption: AMP employees examine equipment at the company’s headquarters in Louisville, Colo.