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Meet the robots and other contraptions making Colorado’s recycling more efficient

From robots to smart cameras, technology is improving recycling efficiency despite China’s ban on imported recycled waste

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Watch Alpine Recycling’s technology in action.

Clarke may be a little stiff, but he picks out milk and juice cartons from a pile of moving trash better than any man or woman at the Altogether Recycling plant in Adams County. The discriminating robot, named after sci-fi icon Arthur C. Clarke, can also work all day and night, if necessary.

In another part of the plant, plastic water bottles wind their way on the same conveyor belt that passes within Clarke’s reach, but the bottles stay on the belt only to suddenly fly up and into a chute with a whoosh. This special machine, a.k.a. the Mach HySpec, can identify No. 1 plastics based on how much light is reflected back to its camera. It doesn’t matter if the plastic is clear or colored.

There are all sorts of innovative contraptions inside one of the state’s most active trash recyclers — with more to come. And that’s really good timing. Earlier this year, China, one of the world’s largest buyers of household recycled waste, put heavy restrictions on incoming trash in an effort to clean up its own country. Pallets of used cardboard, for example, could be rejected at the port and sent returned to the sender if Chinese authorities found a stray piece of Styrofoam contaminating the stack. It was a wake-up call for the United States and other nations to find an alternative for their waste.

“It’s virtually impossible (to meet the new restrictions), but we’re doing it. And we’re doing it through more labor, slowing our system down and new technology,” said Brent Hildebrand, a vice president at Alpine Waste & Recycling, which owns Altogether. “When we opened this facility, we always said we were going to produce extremely high-quality material. That focus since day one has really paid off for the company. We have a reputation with buyers who know that what they’re buying is what we’re saying it is.”

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Credit: Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun
Travis Martin, right, a mechanical engineering intern for AMP Robotics, runs some tests on “Clarke,” Alpine’s recyclables-sorting robot. Developed by Louisville-based AMP Robotics, Clarke uses artificial intelligence to learn what is a milk carton and what isn’t and can pick them out at a rate of up to 60 cartons per minute. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still, the impact of China’s “National Sword policy” has been rough on recyclers and consumers with good intentions. In Oregon, where it’s illegal to dump recyclables into a landfill, the state’s environmental agency let the rule slide until it figures out an alternative. That has so far sent 23 million pounds of recyclables to the landfill, according to Oregon’s Statesman Journal.

Local haulers, like Pro Disposal in the Denver suburbs and Mountain Waste in the mountains, upped customer monthly recycling fees to cover some costs.

“We’ve closed the gap significantly, but I still hear a lot of rebuttal, ‘Why does it cost so much to recycle trash in our valley?’” said Mike Hinkley, Mountain Waste’s district manager, adding that customers near its Carbondale headquarters saw recycling fees jump to $5 from zero.

Think about it from a different perspective: Recycling costs so much because tossing trash in the landfill is so much cheaper, he said.

“If you have one ton of trash and we take it to the landfill, it costs us $68 to get rid of it,” Hinkley said. “If you take one ton of recycling and add in all the expenses to pick it up curbside, load it to different containers, haul it to Wolcott on a third-party carrier and take it to (Alpine’s) Altogether, it costs us $300 a ton to process it and do it correctly.”

MORE: Coloradans generate 9.6 pounds of trash per person, per day. Where does it all go?

Laurie Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Association for Recycling, calls China’s policy “a huge blessing in disguise.” Colorado has no mandates to force residents to recycle, so the state’s recycling rates are some of the lowest in the country. A 2016 report shamed the city of Denver because of its low 18 percent recycling rate. Similarly sized cities scored much higher, including Salt Lake City, at 38 percent, and Fresno, Calif., at 71 percent.

“It’s time for us to deal with our own materials. The China (restrictions) came about because of contamination. We’re really busy now because people, counties and cities are calling saying ‘My provider isn’t picking this up anymore.’ Or, ‘Oh, my costs just doubled,’” she said. “Ideally, we should pick up recycling every week and trash every other.”

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Colorado did perk up a bit. In August 2017, the state’s Solid & Hazardous Waste Commission passed a resolution to get the state to a 45 percent diversion rate by 2036, with a higher 51 percent goal for the Front Range. But it’s just a goal. No penalties are part of the plan.

Hildebrand, at Alpine, realizes how confusing sorting recyclables can be. Old BBQ grills? Not accepted. Frying pans? Nope. Plastic straws, coffee K-cups or hangers? No, no and no. Greasy pizza boxes? Also a no. But he said he still prefers single-stream recycling because it simplifies the thought process for consumers since everything gets tossed in one bin. More people are recycling because of single stream.

“Single stream has made it a lot harder on processors. However, participation rates have gone up. The volume has gone up. And environmentally, we’re recouping a lot more raw materials, which again translates to more volume. Single stream is a good thing,” he said. “We just need to get the education out there.”

One educational plea from Hildebrand? Keep plastic bags out of the recycling bin. They snag on the equipment so a human has to physically cut them out every few hours. And no large or small metal objects, please. Items from horseshoes to boiler parts have jammed and broken equipment, shutting down the recycling line for hours.

MORE: Recycling in Colorado is tedious, cost-prohibitive, voluntary — and evolving

Over the years, Alpine and others have expanded the list of acceptable items, thanks to better equipment, new business models and technology.

Clarke is one of those new-fangled investments that has helped the plant get contamination rates to below 10 percent (“It’s not uncommon for facilities to have 20 percent or greater contamination rates,” Hildebrand said.).

The robot joined as part of a pilot program with creator AMP Robotics in Louisville. Clarke, which can pick 60 cartons per minute, learns as it goes and can be programmed to focus on any object based on value. If the price of oil drops, for example, Clarke can change its focus to a non-oil-based plastic.

“The key is the vision system. It learns from experience. We don’t program it to identify No. 1 plastics, but show it hundreds and thousands of different materials. It learns what Horizon Milk looks like. It’s red, has a cow in front, its shape,” said AMP’s founder and CEO Matanya Horowitz, who started tinkering with robotics as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. “Clarke can adjust pretty much to any material needed in the facility, as long as there’s space to deposit things.”

Polystyrene foam, which is commonly referred to as Styrofoam, has been historically too light to recycle because the foam would fly off the trucks in transit. But Alpine Recycle invested in a machine that chops the foam and presses it into dense, 50-pound blocks. The blocks then are stacked into 500- to 1,000-pound piles on pallets that are loaded on trucks. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In 2016, Alpine began accepting Styrofoam after investing in a foam densifier machine that smashes polystyrene foam into 50- to 60-pound blocks. The foam material can then be transported to a buyer without it flying off the truck (the reason why foam is typically not recyclable).

Another piece of equipment, the ballistic separator, sorts 2-D materials, like paper, from 3-D object like cans and bottles. Alpine hopes to add a second ballistic separator and another optical sorter to better separate out cardboard into a bin in February.

At the household level, consumers can take clean plastic bags back to the grocery store. Metal recyclers, like Denver Metal Recycling, take aluminum wheels, window siding and radiators. Pizza boxes? Well, if it’s greasy, the city of Denver will take it as compost.

Expect more items soon, Hildebrand said. After environmental activists from Stand.earth embarrassed Starbucks last spring by showing its plastic-lined paper cups tossed in the recycling bin actually ended up in Denver landfills, the coffee company pledged $10 million to create a compostable cup or find a reuse for the cup.

Alpine figured out its own solution.

On Thursday, the company is expected to announce that it partnered with Foodservice Packaging Institute and its Community Partnership program. Alpine will use a pulp mill in Wisconsin to recycle the cups. Coffee shops, however, must arrange for Alpine to pick up from their stores.

UPDATE: Colorado’s largest recycling company — finally — will be able to recycle Starbucks and other coffee cups

Who buys recycled raw materials?

Rocky Mountain Bottle Co: The company buys glass from many recyclers and has teamed up with cities like Denver to recover glass that can be cleaned and reused. In the Fall of 2017 alone, the company recovered 300 tons of recycled glass that was shipped back to Denver and reused in bottles for Coors Light, Miller Light and Blue Moon.

Adidas repurposes 11 plastic bottles from ocean trash to make a pair of its Parley for the Oceans shoes. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Adidas: The shoemaker uses plastics illegally dumped in the ocean and turns them into shoes as part of its Parley for the Oceans brand. There are now several styles in the Parley line — including cleats — with each pair of shoes requiring 11 plastic bottles.

Aleph Objects: Recycled plastic has been a questionable material for the 3-D printing industry. But the Loveland-based maker of the LulzBot 3-D printer is hopeful and shared the progress of scientists on a trip to the Solomon Islands. Mazher Mohammed, a senior research fellow at Deakin University’s School of Engineering, and his team ground up used plastic bottles, fed the pieces into a homemade extruder, which turned it into usable plastic filament. The team went on to print out pipe connectors to fix the town’s water system. “If a 3-D print, even a poor quality one, can fix a water pump and remove some plastic from the environment, it’s a win-win,” said Ben Malouf, Aleph’s director of marketing.

Mazher Mohammed, a senior research fellow at Deakin University’s School of Engineering, talks about using plastic found in the trash to make 3-D printer filament, or “ink.”

Shaw Inc.: The Georgia-based carpet and flooring company buys plastic bottles on the open market and turns them into flakes that can be used as a material for carpeting.

Applegate Insulation: Penrose-based insulation manufacturer buys newspapers and other paper to use for spray-on insulation, paper shavings for pet bedding, mulch and products that safely absorb industrial spills and liquid waste.

Ball Corp.: The Broomfield packaging company sells aluminum to many local and national beverage companies, including Oskar Blues. The metal is “100 percent recyclable and can be recycled infinitely with no loss of quality,” according to the company. That’s why it’s important for Ball to promote recycling, which it does with cities nationwide. In Denver, a 2017 pilot progam resulted in a 25 percent increase in can recycling, and was rolled out citywide this year.

Contact Tamara Chuang at tamara@coloradosun.com