Touch screen takes the touching out of waste sorting

Wed, 2015-03-11 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Sorting trash is certainly a dirty job. Thanks to a project that’s already in the prototype phase, however, it may not have to be for much longer.

Council Associate Partner Veolia is testing a new remote operated sorting system where a touch screen eliminates the need to actually touch the trash. While workers at waste sorting facilities will undoubtedly appreciate a system that helps them keep their hands clean and prevents workplace injuries, it could have real benefits for cities and the environment as well.

Prototype delivers benefits already
Veolia’s touch-screen system is already being tested in Amiens, a city of more than 130,000 in north-central France. Even as a prototype, it has boosted the amount of recyclable material recovered from household trash by 6% over purely manual sorting.

The prototype uses a two-step process, which uses computers to make an initial sort and then people to refine it. It’s this combination that makes the system more effective.

How it works
Once a minute, the system makes a quick assessment of the waste on the conveyor belt. During these checks, it determines if the waste is predominantly of one type. It’s essentially like a vote. For example, if it detects more clear plastic than anything else, everything on the conveyor belt moves to plastic processing.

It’s at these secondary checkpoints that the humans help.  A picture of the conveyor belt contents is beamed to a touchscreen. An operator looks at the picture and touches everything that doesn’t belong.

The operator doesn’t touch anything but the touch screen. A compressed air system blasts all of the items that don’t belong on the belt back for disposal or resorting.

Recycling instructions need improvement
France currently recycles a little over half of its non-hazardous waste with plans to reach 60% in 10 years. Veolia says it can’t reach the next step by itself; plastics and other manufacturers are going to have to step up and provide more clarity about how to reuse their products.

For all the plastic packaging currently on the market, there are sorting instructions for only about 40% of it. And less than a quarter of that total is actually recycled.

Developing more complete sorting instructions is key to not only recycling more of the materials, but also making those materials more useful. Rigid standards are needed -- and recycling facilities need to adhere to them -- to make sure the recycled products are uniform. Any impurities lower their quality and cause producers to choose virgin materials instead.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

More resources …
Dissecting ISO 37120: The long road to zero waste cities
More people, more garbage: Report forecasts rapid growth in smart waste market
Smart Trash: Study on RFID Tags and the Recycling Industry