• The USyd robot sorting through soft plastics with the help of AI technology. (Credit: University of Sydney)
    The USyd robot sorting through soft plastics with the help of AI technology. (Credit: University of Sydney)
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In what is hoped to be a revolutionary step for streamlining the recycling process of soft plastics, engineering researchers from the University of Sydney have developed a new robot that identifies and sorts the problematic waste materials.

Working alongside industry partners, as part of the federal government’s Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P) grant, researchers from the Centre for Internet of Things (IoT) and Telecommunications at the University of Sydney have created a smart, automated robotic system that uses AI to sort recyclable waste.

The team includes professors Branka Vucetic, professor Yonghui Li, associate professor Wanli Ouyang, Dr Wanchun Liu, and senior technical officer Dawei Tan from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering. 

“The recycling robotic automation system will use AI and computer vision to learn how to identify different forms of recycling waste, effectively learning how to see and sort waste, to create separate waste streams and maintain soft plastics’ purity so they can be recycled,” explains Vucetic. 

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. 

“Soft plastics are a big contributor to landfill and have long been a challenge for the circular economy and waste management sector, as they have lacked an adequate and safe sorting method. Using the latest IoT techniques, we have created a custom robot to solve this issue,” says Li. 

“Between 2018 and 2019, Australia generated 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste, which included soft plastics, and only nine per cent was sent to recycling, while 84 per cent went to landfill,” adds Liu. 

“We aim to drastically switch those percentages by developing a solution that allows for most soft plastic waste being recycled.” 

The system will be integrated into iQRenew’s material recovery facility as part of CurbCycle’s soft plastic recovery program, which is an Australian initiative that involves the household collection of recyclables that are segregated into bags prior to placing them into kerbside recycling bins.

According to Ouyang, the robot will identify ‘CurbyTagged’ bags and differentiate sources of plastic, separating soft plastics from the fully co-mingled recyclables.

“Not only does our project divert household soft plastics from going to landfill, but by creating a solution for the collection and sorting of waste with our industry and research partners, we’re also creating a sustainable supply chain that takes rubbish from households to end markets,” continues Ouyang. 

After being separated from other waste, the soft plastics will be used for various purposes, including advanced recycling into oils and other valuable chemicals using patented Cat-HTR (Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor) technology created by Licella Holdings. 

Licella was founded by professor Thomas Maschmeyer from the Faculty of Science, alongside Licella CEO Dr Len Humphreys, and has been supported by the University of Sydney for 14 years.

“This highly innovative materials handling process can help extend the range of the Cat-HTR conversion technology to now include increasingly challenging waste streams, highlighting the benefit of close industrial and academic collaboration,” Maschmeyer concludes. 

The researchers were awarded just under $3 million as part of an Australian federal government CRC-P grant.

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