Researchers from Finnish technology firm ZenRobotics Ltd. have created the Recycler, a robot that automates the process of sorting recyclables from a waste stream. Photo: ZenRobotics

By Jenni Spinner

Sorting recyclables out of mounds of trash is a difficult, menial task — one that no person could do happily, or effectively, for an extended period of time. Fortunately, a team of Finnish scientists has come up with a solution that performs the thankless job, saving humans from having to do it.

The ZenRobotics Recycler sorts recyclables out of a waste stream using a standard industrial robotic arm. It uses artificial intelligence to monitor materials in the stream and pick out reclaimable material from the waste, with little need for human intervention.

The Finland-based company says out-sourcing the sorting from humans to robots could help solid waste departments mitigate the legal risks associated with placing employees in an industrial environment like recyclables sorting and exposing them to potentially health-harming garbage. Additionally, an automated system like the Recycler could enable public works managers to conserve costs and streamline operations in ways other businesses have been doing for years.

“Industrial automation has cut production costs in practically every industry,” says Timo Haanpää, communications manager for ZenRobotics Ltd. “But in the waste management industry, robots have been virtually unknown. The use of robotics will now offer dramatic cost reductions and improve recovery rates.”

The Recycler measures 39.4 x 32.8 x 18 feet and weighs 11 tons. An industrial conveyor feeds waste past a sensor package that identifies recyclables in the stream and controls the robotic arm, which picks the recyclable items from the waste.

The system is based on the research of company founder Harri Valpola, who has studied biomimetic artificial intelligence for more than 15 years. The company applied the technology to various projects, including optimizing a nuclear power plant. Then, ZenRobotics researchers determined it was ready for the formidable challenge of a nonstructured industrial environment, such as waste recycling.

The current prototypes, which have been in operation for more than two years, are programmed to sort out construction and demolition debris such as concrete, brick, stone, steel, wood, and plastics. But Haanpää says the Recycler could easily be reconfigured to handle an industrial or municipal waste stream through a tweak in the software — another way public works managers could save time, trouble, and money.

“As the value of waste processing and extracted fractions varies over time, a change in the market may require costly improvements to traditional machinery,” he says. “In contrast, ZenRo-botics Recycler is not purpose-specific.”

Although still in the prototype stage, Haanpää says the Recycler is close to commercial viability. ZenRobotics plans to begin offering the system globally through a network of international resellers beginning in 2012.

— Jenni Spinner ( is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a former editor of PUBLIC WORKS.


For a sneak preview of the Recycler robot in action, click here.