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

ANN ARBOR — Michigan is now one of the nation’s three best states for recycling plastics, according to a recent Wise Voter study.

And in Ann Arbor, recycling plastics is about to get easier thanks to the pending arrival of a state-of-the-art SamurAI sorting robot that will enable the city’s recycling agency to process and sell more plastic than ever before.

“This is a big, exciting deal — our new robot is a technological marvel that’s going to be a game-changer for how we can more safely recycle certain types of plastics in greater amounts and with more efficiency than we’ve ever previously experienced,” said Ukena, the CEO of Recycle Ann Arbor (RAA), a nationally acclaimed nonprofit credited with creating Michigan’s first curbside recycling program in 1978.

“At the same time, as more and more communities begin utilizing these SamurAI Sorting Robots moving forward, we can help address our nation’s plastics pollution crisis,” Ukena said.

RAA is already revitalizing recycling in Southeast Michigan with a new materials recovery facility (MRF) that ensures recyclable materials are sorted and sold to manufacturers for use in new products.

The MRF opened Dec. 1, 2021, at 4150 Platt Road in Ann Arbor, after 12 months of construction to complete a $7.25 million overhaul of the facility, which had been defunct since 2016. Its physical redesign and operating strategy are both driven by a zero-waste ethic with the aim of supporting an effective, sustainable recycling system. 

Flying With EGLE

The Material Recovery Facility presort station is the entry point for all materials sorted at the facility. Sorters remove items like trash, plastic bags and electronics to prevent them from damaging the equipment and contaminating the recyclables. Credit: Recycle Ann Arbor

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 EGLE’s national award-winning Know It Before You Throw It recycling education campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoons that adorn street corner recycling bins throughout Ann Arbor. 

As a regional hub designed to process 34,000 tons annually with a single shift, the MRF provides much-needed recycling infrastructure in Southeast Michigan.

In addition to serving the city of Ann Arbor under a 10-year contract, RAA is processing materials from the city of Ypsilanti and the surrounding area. These cities had previously shipped recyclables out of state for sorting. Ann Arbor is saving $640,000 annually compared with the previous contract, under which materials were shipped long distances for processing. The RAA team anticipates the savings from processing materials on-site will continue to grow as the market for recyclables improves. 

Despite the overwhelming success of the new MRF, determining how to improve its plastics recycling performance remained a major obstacle that confronted RAA and continues to vex recyclers across the nation.

Problem Plastics

Recycle Ann Arbor's longtime staff, Michelle Moravcik and Diego Tambriz, sort out contamination from the facility's paper to help ensure the cleanest end materials possible. Credit: Recycle Ann Arbor

Plastic is a synthetic material that is cheap, strong and resistant. While its characteristics make it an appealing material for production and consumption, those same characteristics are problematic for the environment — mainly because it does not easily decompose and ends up in the ocean, landfills or littering streets.

At the Ann Arbor MRF, plastics are sorted into separate piles based on their melting temperatures.  Historically, RAA staff has manually sorted certain plastics for recycling but because they are hard to identify as they speed by on a conveyor belt, too much of their plastics ended up going to a landfill.

Enter the SamurAI sorting robot manufactured by Machinex Technologies.

The SamurAI Solution

Recycling plastics is about to get easier thanks to the pending arrival of a state-of-the-art SamurAI sorting robot that will enable the city’s recycling agency to process and sell more plastic than ever before. Credit: Recycle Ann Arbor

The machine is an adaptive robot powered by artificial intelligence to more accurately and efficiently identify specific types of plastics and other materials for safe, fast and effective sorting, especially in identifying and selecting polypropylene (PP) plastics. PP is the type of plastic labeled No. 5 on packaging for such grocery items as yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream and butter containers.

Now, with the introduction of its SamurAI robot, RAA is looking to increase its recycling capacity of PP to at least 360 tons annually and divert it from landfills.

Recycled PP is commonly used by manufacturers to make caps, cups, automotive parts, paint cans, transport packaging, housewares and other products. PP has been collected for recycling for less than a decade. But collection and sorting is growing, with MRFs across Michigan making major investments, some fueled by support from EGLE, national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership and other entities.

RAA’s SamurAI acquisition was funded through a $200,000 grant from EGLE and an additional $186,000 from the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, an initiative of The Recycling Partnership. 

Benefits of RAA’s SamurAI solution include its capabilities to:

  • Identify distinguishing features on recyclables in the same way as the human eye.
  • Recognize recyclable material in dirty, tangled and constantly changing conditions, including the introduction of new packaging and designs.
  • Continually improve and learn from operating experience.
  • Reach up to 70 processing “picks” per minute, which nearly doubles the average speed of a person who separates items by hand at a recycling processing center.
  • Remove small and light materials using a unique integrated suction system which reduces RAA’s daily operation costs.
  • Protect workers from handling dangerous items, such as batteries, needles, and household chemicals.

SamurAI’s Safety ROI

The importance of improved employee safety and better working conditions at the Ann Arbor MRF is especially significant, Ukena noted.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2020 Employer-Reported Workplace Injuries and Illness report showed the rate of injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers at materials recovery facilities rose from 3.6 in 2019 to 5.1in 2020.

“Processing recycled materials by hand is a dangerous profession for humans — you can get hepatitis from a needle stick, abrasions and cuts are common, hands get caught in the baling process and on conveyer belts. In many ways, it’s more dangerous work than being a firefighter,” Ukena said.

“It’s also important to know our SamurAI robot won’t replace workers. It just improves quality control and reduces safety risk in the workplace,” he added.

Profit Potential

Approximately 3.5 billion pounds of rigid polypropylene packaging is sold every year nationally, but only a very small fraction is recycled. RAA hopes to improve the recycling of PP at its new facility when the SamurAI robot becomes operable this fall.

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

of choice for food service and packaging due to its positive health profile and potential for

recycling collection and recycled content,” said Matt Flechter, an EGLE recycling market development specialist.

Major retailers, dairy brands and quick-service restaurants are shifting from polystyrene – commonly referred to as Styrofoam – to PP, particularly in food and food service applications, because they seek a material that can be sorted by local MRFs.

RAA projects the SamurAI’s faster sorting speed will result in increased revenue from RAA’s sale of its recycled plastics. As a result, it expects to provide an average of $72,000 annually to city of Ann Arbor coffers and generate a new funding source for all its Washtenaw County municipality partners.

“We are confident there is going to be a high demand for recycled polypropylene for the foreseeable future, because being able to put that on a product label signals a commitment by name-brand companies that they’re using recycled materials in their product lines,” 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 www.RecyclingRaccoons.org.

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