GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The Kent County Recycling and Education Center’s three newest workers are powered by artificial intelligence, and they’re quickly learning how to be more efficient.
Kent County Department of Public Works officials announced Thursday, June 22, that earlier this month they installed three, AI-powered robots at the facility that can quickly scan incoming recyclables and separate out what county workers tell them to.
Right now, it’s milk jugs and other similar plastics in that recycling code. It’s something easily identifiable for the AI while it learns more about the facility’s recycling stream and becomes more efficient.
“These machines are learning about our recycling and they’re calibrating basically to pick off material that we ask them to,” said Kent DPW spokesperson Steve Faber.
The quick sorting and separation by the new robots won’t just make operations at the recycling center at 977 Wealthy St. SW in Grand Rapids more efficient, it’ll also help the county earn more money on recyclables sold.
By having the AI look for a specific, higher-priced recyclable, the robots will help keep more of those types of recyclables together for when they’re bundled, Faber said. The more a bundle is composed of the same type of recyclable, the more money it’ll fetch at sale.
The machines came with a price tag of $580,000. About $406,000 of that came from a state grant and another $174,000 from Kent DPW. The robots were purchased from Denver-based AMP Robotics.
And while the new machines can sort materials at a higher rate than humans, they won’t be replacing any of the 10 to 12 employees that work at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center, Faber said.
Additionally, there will still be employees conducting quality control at the end of the recycling sorting process to ensure the recyclables bundled together are of a similar kind.
The machines are the latest in a long line of improvements to make sorting the single stream of recyclables entering the facility quicker and more efficient.
Faber said when the facility opened in 2010, there were more than 30 employees on the line sorting out the recyclable.
Since then, the county has added improved cardboard screening, optical sorters calibrated to sorting out different plastic types and magnets that sort out different types of metal from the stream.
Now, the line can be run with fewer than 10 people.
Kent DPW Director Dar Baas said the new technologies help the department continue on its goal to reduce the amount of landfilled waste.
“At the DPW, we are continuously innovating and implementing practices that increase our efficiency, improve safety, reduce landfill waste and provide an overall better environment for Kent County residents,” Baas said.
The new AI-driven sorting robots are similar to the ones that would be in the $380 million waste processing facility proposed by Kent DPW to reduce the amount of garbage landfilled every year.
The waste processing facility, called the Kent County Bioenergy Facility, would be run by Canada-based Anaergia and handle 400,000 tons of garbage a year, as well as 30,000 tons of recyclables, to produce renewable natural gas, fertilizer and recyclable commodities.
The county currently diverts about 26% of garbage from being landfilled either through recycling or incinerating it, Kent DPW officials said. The Bioenergy Facility would increase that to about 65%.
Under the plan presented June 15, the county would pay about $80 million of the $380 million price tag, with Anaergia and federal and state grants covering the rest. The county would seek to bond the $80 million.
If given the greenlight later this year by commissioners, the Kent County Bioenergy Facility is expected to be fully operational by early 2027.