AI waste management study to track quality plastic recyclates

A new study from Closed Loop Partners, the NextGen Consortium and the AI waste management company Greyparrot is set to analyse the quality and composition of plastic recycling systems.

Plastic recycling conveyor beltThe study will make use of GreyParrot’s AI waste management systems to track and categorise items going through polypropylene (PP) recycling streams. The partners hope the data provided will shine a light on the volume of potentially food-grade recycling materials in the system.

PP is one of the most commonly used plastics in food packaging today, and is considered ‘highly recyclable’. However, because of the huge variety of PP products available on the market, PP can be challenging to identify, sort, clean and process, leading to low recycling rates.

In an earlier experiment conducted by the NextGen Consortium and Resource Recycling Systems in 2022, the partners found that on average 48 per cent of recycled materials in PP bales were appropriate for food-grade applications. Despite this, very little recycled PP is currently used in food-packaging applications.

GreyParrot analyser units will be installed above PP recovery belts at four leading US  Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs): Balcones Recycling, Texas; Cougles Recycling, Pennsylvania; Rumpke Recycling, Ohio; and Eureka Recycling, Minnesota. The NextGen Consortium states that it will continue to invite additional MRFs to participate in the project.

Once installed, the Greyparrot units will capture images of objects in the PP steam and categorise each object based on material, format, financial value and brand, as well as distinguishing food-grade and nonfood-grade materials. The data will then be updated in real-time. GreyParrot hopes that its technology will improve its ability to recognise and classify packaging through machine learning over the course of the contract period.

“A lot is unknown about the curbside polypropylene stream today,” said Curt Cozart, President of Common Sense Solutions and Technical Advisor to the project. “Filling these knowledge gaps can increase the pace of development for material recovery. Understanding the composition of the stream in a large-scale study highlights potential, reduces risk for pioneers and accelerates better design implementation. This study will be the catalyst to developing much larger-scale recycling of polypropylene.”

The project will run for six months, gathering data on the composition of recycled PP bales and accounting for seasonal changes in the use of PP products. Closed Loop Partners hope that the insights provided may help determine the potential untapped value in these recycling streams, and identify other materials that might be coming through unintentionally.

The role of AI in waste management

Closed Loop Partners believe that – as waste streams come to handle an increasingly mixed stream of collected materials, including plastics, electronics, textiles and food scraps – technologies like those pioneered by GreyParrot will become necessary to enable the proper recovery of clean, high-quality materials.

Kate Daly, Managing Director and Head of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, said: “Ensuring that recovery infrastructure can keep pace with a rapidly growing and diverse material stream is critical to advancing the circular economy, alongside solutions such as material innovation, reduction and reuse.

“An important part of our work in the NextGen Consortium is identifying opportunities for data collection and analysis that can advance the circularity of foodservice packaging, and drive greater value for stakeholders across the system, including brands, innovators, infrastructure operators and consumers.”

According to The Recycling Partnership, more than two billion pounds of PP are generated every year by single-family households in the US. The Partnership predicts that if just 30 per cent of this material were recovered, it might reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 300,000 metric tons, providing over 600 million pounds of valuable raw material to companies with recycled content commitments for their foodservice packaging, both voluntary and mandated.