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These Earth-Saving Robots Might Be The Future Recyclers

Meet Liam, an Apple robot designed to take apart 1.2 million iPhones a year.

Mashable reporter Samantha Murphy Kelly got a first look at the robot at Apple's headquarters. It has 29 arms and it was an Apple secret for three years. She writes:

"Liam is programmed to carefully disassemble the many pieces of returned iPhones, such as SIM card trays, screws, batteries and cameras, by removing components bit by bit so they'll all be easier to recycle. Traditional tech recycling methods involve a shredder with magnets that makes it hard to separate parts in a pure way (you'll often get scrap materials commingled with other pieces)."

According to Apple's environmental report released last week, Liam's goal is to pick out all the high-quality, reusable components from old iPhones to reduce the need for mining more resources from earth.

While the technology currently only exists in Apple's factories in California and the Netherlands, it's the company's experiment in recycling technology — a field that is gradually attracting the interest of technology and robotics entrepreneurs.

We just might end up in a world reminiscent of the 2008 Disney and Pixar movie WALL-E.

Sorting Through Chemicals In E-Waste

When trash is sorted for recycling by hand, the job can be dangerous. According to a report published last year by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health and other organizations, 17 people died between 2011 and 2013 on their jobs at recycling facilities in the United States due to unsafe working conditions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists all the hazards workers can be exposed to when sorting out waste, ranging from chemical exposure to lifting injuries. Electronic waste, in particular, exposes workers to multiple chemicals that may harm their health, including ammonia, mercury and asbestos.

According to the Apple's recent environmental report, the company has collected nearly 90 million pounds of e-waste through its recycling programs, which is 71 percent of the total weight of the products it sold seven years earlier.

But Fortune editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt wrote that Liam the robot wouldn't scale up because Apple sold more than 230 million iPhones last year. He writes:

"One Liam is not going to make much of a dent in the toxic mountain of electronics waste Apple has helped create."

While Apple told Mashable's Kelly that no other company it knows of is disassembling technology products in this way, there are many interesting "recycling robots" like Liam out there, although most are still just prototypes — except for ZenRobotics, a company from Finland.

Using Smart Software To Sort Trash

The ZenRobotics Recycler utilizes artificial intelligence to identify and sort materials from mixed waste. Show samples of materials to the system, and the software will learn what to do with it. According to its website, the company has the "first commercially available robotic waste sorting system." This month, it announced plans to deliver its first robots to the U.S.

Dane Campbell, a systems engineer with PLEXUS Recycling Technologies, the company that brought ZenRobotics into the United States, says robotics in the waste industry in the U.S. is not the new idea — but artificial intelligence is.

He says current machines sometimes have problems sorting out materials like plastic bags from newspapers, thus causing sorting facilities to rely on people. According to Campbell, the machines can cost up to $1 million each.

Recycling may become more expensive — a New York Times opinion article pointed out last October — as more materials are thrown into the recycling dump, sorting will take more supervision. But automation remains expensive. The falling commodity prices might also hurt the recycling business.

A U.S. startup, AMP Robotics, aims to change that by offering "scalable recycling." The company is fairly new, and founder Matanya Horowitz says he had the idea to bring robotics to the recycling industry because conditions for recycling workers can be "dull, dirty and dangerous." He says "recycling is ripe for this technology."

The company sold one machine last month and is still looking to improve the system. According to Horowitz, the machine will work like those found in a food processing plant.

Roaming Robots To Encourage Recycling Behavior

Some more future-looking solutions to encourage recycling might lie with robots that encourage you to throw your trash into bins.

For a time in Disney World, a talking trash can called Push roamed the streets of the theme park, encouraging people to discard trash in it while cracking jokes at passers-by. It's no longer there after the contract expired in 2014.

A few years ago, the Dustbot, a Segway-robot hybrid roamed the streets of Italy, collecting trash when called. The project ended in 2009.

As robotics and technology like artificial intelligence matures, we just might see more of these robots hiding behind sorting facilities or roaming the streets — especially because we're accumulating more and more waste globally and in the U.S.

Zhai Yun Tan is a digital news intern.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Zhai Yun Tan