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Ways to reduce waste

20 June 2018

With plastic packaging waste high on the environmental agenda, Charlotte Stonestreet looks at how AI and robotic recycling are helping to address the issue

Anyone who saw the final episode of last year’s Blue Planet II could not have failed to be shocked by images of the devastation being caused by plastic in the world’s oceans. As a result of the powerful programme from the BBC, in what is being referred to as the “Blue Planet effect’, there has been an enormous groundswell of public support for initiatives aimed at reducing the amount of plastic packaging used across all sectors.

Just last week, A Plastic Planet, supported by organisations in Europe, Asia and the Americas such as TimeOut, Spotify and Sky Ocean Rescue, hoped to inspire 250 million people around the world to stop using plastic-packaged products to mark World Environment Day.

The campaign group, which was  founded last year, also pioneered the Plastic Free Trust Mark, a label to show shoppers there is no hidden plastic in their food. Iceland is the first British retailer to adopt the mark for its own brand products and it is hoped others will follow suit.

Elsewhere, Ikea is to phase out all single-use plastic products  – plastic straws, plates, cups, freezer bags, bin bags, and plastic-coated paper plates and cups – from its stores and restaurants by 2020.

it is important that the overall amount of packaging used is minimised

While much emphasis is, rightly, being placed on replacing plastic with more recyclable materials, it is important that the overall amount of packaging used is minimised.

Scott Tuckey, product manager at Antalis Packaging, comments: “The packaging landscape is a complex one and what often gets overlooked in the debate on waste reduction is that for many small businesses plastic remains the most economically viable option and in some cases has a lower carbon footprint than those considered more environmentally friendly.

“What’s equally important, we’ve found, is the poor or excessive use of plastic materials and packaging as a whole, which if addressed correctly can significantly reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfill or in the environment, including plastic.

“With online sales continuing to rise year-on-year, consumers not only expect a hassle-free, seamless and impressive unboxing experience at home, but are increasingly favouring companies who care about the environment.”

One approach highland by Antalis is using bespoke solutions. Tailoring packaging to perfectly fit a product not only promotes less waste, but is also a more protective and efficient way to transport goods. For example, the company’s Geami WrapPak range is an eco-friendly, cost effective and aesthetically-pleasing alternative to traditional bubble wrap that can significantly reduce the need for plastic void-fill.

Artificial Intelligence

According to Blue Yonder, AI and automated replenishment can help retailers in particular to reduce plastic waste, while maintaining a profit margin. Uwe Weiss, CEO at the leader in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation for retail supply chain optimisation comments: “Retailers struggle to predict the right amount of stock to meet customer demand, and they therefore often order more stock than is necessary, preferring to throw food away rather than run the risk of shelf gaps. When this food is thrown away, which is also a serious environmental issue, its plastic packaging must also be disposed of. This can often be recycled but, as we have seen from the figures released last week, too often it is just discarded, with no thought given to the environmental damage caused by this approach.”

Retailers have access to an enormous amount of data, whether it is recurring trends, past sales figures, customer footfall or even a change in the weather. AI and machine learning solutions can use this data to reduce plastic waste by making accurate predictions of customer demand and automating replenishment decisions, becoming more accurate as it continues to learn and refine its forecasting models. This can also significantly improve product availability, removing manual intervention from the process and ensuring that retailers have the appropriate level of stock to match potential sales, reducing food and plastic waste.

 “We live in an era where humans are producing more plastic waste than ever before, more in the last decade than in the entire 20th century. This is where AI can play an important role, offering a solution that not only reduces waste and the environmental impact of the retail sector, but is able to monitor, control and improve replenishment,” says Weiss.

Robotic recycling

Along with replacing and reducing the amount of plastic packaging used, increasing the levels of recycling is also vitally important. According to a study from the University of California, out of the 9.1 billion tons of plastic produced since the industry's boom began in around 1950, 7 billion tons of it is out of use; barely 9 percent of it has ever been recycled, 12 percent of it was incinerated and the rest - some 5.5 billion tons of plastic - now resides in waterways and landfill.

Over in the US, AMP Robotics specialises in recycling robots that use AI. The company’s AMP Cortex robot identifies, grabs and sorts food and beverage cartons from the recycling stream so they can be sent to recyclers and turned into new materials, such as tissues, paper towels and other paper materials, as well as sustainable building and construction materials. When fully operational, the robot can pick up 60 cartons per minute (or more), considerably more than a human’s average pickup rate of 40. Through artificial intelligence (AI), everything learned about identifying cartons can be transferred to other systems, and the robot continues to become better at identifying and sorting more cartons in various shapes and brands.

Through AI everything learned about identifying cartons can be transferred to other systems

Another robotics company using AI in recycling applications is Helsinki-based ZenRobotics. The latest addition to the company’s line of intelligent waste sorting robots is the ZenRobotics Fast Picker for light material. The new robot model is a result of ZenRobotics’ decade-long experience in waste robotics and couples intelligent software with high-speed picking. Designed to improve efficiency, ZenRobotics Fast Picker is ideal for lightweight material such as packaging (LWP) and dry mixed recyclables (DMR).

The unit is powered by ZenbrAIn Artificial Intelligence software that analyses the data and controls the robots. ZenbrAIn is constantly learning, enabling operators to quickly react to changes in the waste stream. Thus, ZenRobotics Fast Picker is not purpose-specific but can be readily updated for performance-tuning or new jobs.

Key Points

  • Tailoring packaging to perfectly fit a product not only promotes less waste, but is also a more protective and efficient way to transport goods
  • AI and automated replenishment can help retailers in particular to reduce plastic waste, while maintaining a profit margin
  • Data can be used to reduce plastic waste by making accurate predictions of customer demand and automating replenishment decisions

 
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