Ann Arbor’s new ‘samurai sorting robot’ is a plastics recycling game-changer

Today’s MI Environment story is by Recycling Raccoons.

ANN ARBOR – Michigan is one of the top three states in the nation for recycling plastics, according to a Wise Voter survey.

SamurAI recycling robot distributed in Ann Arbor.

SamurAI recycling robot distributed in Ann Arbor.

And in Ann Arbor, plastic recycling is about to get easier thanks to the arrival of a new SamurAI recycling robot that will allow the city’s recycling department to process and sell more plastics than past times. “This is a big, exciting project – our new robot is a technological marvel that will become a game changer in how we can recycle certain types of plastic in larger amounts and more efficiently than we knew before,” said Ukena, CEO of Recycle Ann Arbor (RAA), a nationally recognized nonprofit that created Michigan’s first recycling program in 1978.

“At the same time, as more communities begin to use these SamurAI Sorting Robots in the future, we will be able to help address our country’s plastic pollution problem,” he said. Pumpkin.

RAA is also revitalizing recycling in Southeast Michigan with a new materials recovery facility (MRF) to prepare recyclables that will be distributed and sold to manufacturers for use in new products.

The MRF opened on December 1, 2021, at 4150 Platt Road in Ann Arbor, after 12 months of construction to complete a $7.25 million renovation of the building, which has been closed since 2016. Its innovative design and management strategy is driven by a zero-waste ethic and aims to support an efficient, sustainable recycling system.

Fly With EGLE

The MRF construction project was supported by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) with an $800,000 grant. It aligns with the goals of obtaining EGLE’s national certification Know before you throw The recycling training program features Recycling Raccoons decorating street corner recycling bins throughout Ann Arbor.

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As a regional facility designed to process 34,000 tons per year with one shift, the MRF provides much-needed recycling infrastructure in southern Michigan.

In addition to serving the city of Ann Arbor under a 10-year contract, RAA is processing goods from the city of Ypsilanti and the surrounding area. These cities sent recyclables out of state for distribution. Ann Arbor is saving $640,000 a year compared to the previous contract, which sent the goods far away for processing. The RAA team expects savings from recycled materials to continue to grow as the market for recyclables improves.

Despite the great success of the new MRF, deciding how to improve its plastic recycling operations remained a major obstacle facing RAA and continues to trouble recyclers across the country.

Plastic Problem

Plastic is a synthetic material that is cheap, strong and resistant. Although its properties make it ideal for production and consumption, these properties pose a problem for the environment – as it does not decompose easily and ends up in the sea, landfills or street waste.

At the Ann Arbor MRF, plastics are sorted into separate batches based on their melting temperature. In the past, RAA workers have manually sorted some plastic for recycling but because it is difficult to identify them as they move quickly on the conveyor belt, they end up with too much plastic. go to immigration.

Enter the distribution bot SamurAI developed by Machinex Technologies.

The SamurAI Solution

The machine is an adaptive robot powered by artificial intelligence to better identify specific types of plastics and other materials for safe, fast and efficient processing, especially in the identification and selection of plastics polypropylene (PP). PP is the type of plastic labeled No. 5 on packaging for commercial goods such as yogurt, cheese, sour cream and butter containers.

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Now, with the introduction of its SamurAI robot, RAA is aiming to increase its PP recycling capacity to over 360 tonnes per year, diverting it from landfills.

Recycled PP is widely used by manufacturers to make hats, cups, machine parts, paint coatings, transport packaging, household appliances and other products. PP has been collected for recycling for less than a decade. But collection and distribution are growing, and MRFs across Michigan are spending big, some thanks to support from EGLE, the national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership and other entities.

RAA’s SamurAI purchase was funded by $200,000 from EGLE and another $186,000 from the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, a project of The Recycling Partnership.

  • The benefits of RAA’s SamurAI solution include its ability to:
  • Identify the different characteristics of recycled objects according to the human eye.
  • Understanding what can be recycled in dirty, messy and ever-changing situations, including the introduction of new packaging and designs.
  • Continuous improvement and learning from operational experience.
  • With up to 70 “picks” per minute, the average speed of someone separating items by hand at a recycling processing center is nearly double.
  • Extract materials cheaply and efficiently using a special integrated suction system that reduces RAA’s daily operating costs.
  • Protect employees from handling hazardous materials, such as batteries, needles, and household chemicals.

SamurAI Safe ROI

The importance of improving worker safety and better working conditions at the Ann Arbor MRF is critical, Ukena said.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2020 Employer-Reported Workplace Injuries and Illness report showed that the rate of injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers in health care facilities increased from 3.6 in 2019 to 5.1 in 2020.

“Processing recycled materials by hand is dangerous for people — you can get hepatitis from a needle stick, it’s common to puncture and cut, hands get caught in circular motions and conveyor belt. In many ways, the job is worse than being a firefighter,” said Ukena.

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“It is also important to note that our robot SamurAI does not replace workers. It improves quality control and reduces safety risk in the workplace,” he added.

Money Potential

About 3.5 billion pounds of rigid polypropylene packaging is sold annually nationwide, but only a tiny fraction is recycled. RAA hopes to improve PP recycling at its new facility when the SamurAI robot works this fall.

“There is strong national growth in the sale and use of polypropylene, because it is a polymer

opting for food service and packaging due to its good health and its capacity for

recycling collection and recycling content,” said Matt Flechter, EGLE’s recycling market development specialist.

Large retailers, dairies and quick service restaurants are switching from polystyrene – also known as Styrofoam – to PP, especially in food and food service applications, as they seek a resource that can be sorted by local MRFs.

RAA’s mission is that the faster distribution of SamurAI will generate more revenue from RAA’s sale of its recycled plastics. As a result, it is expected to provide an average of $72,000 annually to the City of Ann Arbor budget and generate a new source of funding for all of its Washtenaw County counterparts.

“We are confident that there will be a high demand for recycled polypropylene in the future, because it can be put on the product label that shows the commitment of the name-brand companies that they are using recycled materials in their product line.” Ukena said.

How and what you can recycle depends on where you live and what you are trying to recycle. To learn more about recycling in Michigan, visit


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