The amount of plastic waste continues to pile up, despite widespread campaigns to encourage recycling. In this episode, Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to APU reverse logistics professor Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth about advancements in recycling including the use of robotics and artificial intelligence to sort plastics. Also learn the challenges of recycling certain plastics, steps manufacturers have taken to use recyclable plastic in their products, and the advantages and disadvantages of using artificial intelligence in recycling centers.
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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast. I’m Wanda Curlee your host. Today we are going to be chatting about plastic waste reduction, recycling and artificial intelligence. My guest is Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth, who is a professor of logistics, supply chain management, and reverse logistics courses at American Public University. He has many years of experience writing about lecturing and talking about artificial intelligence related to many parts of industry. Welcome back Oliver and thank you for joining us.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Thank you for inviting me here. And I think we’ll have a good time talking about plastic. It is a very important thing to talk about.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Absolutely. You’ve been following the trends and leaps in the area of artificial intelligence, as you just mentioned, or it’s also called machine learning. Before we get into that area, what made you interested in plastic waste reduction and recycling?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, didn’t think about it but it goes way back. I’d say studying recycling and reverse logistics since about 2002. That’s when I was a professor of logistics at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, I was there about eight years. And as a professor I found there are many recycling myths about recycling things and plastic especially. So I started studying those myths and what is and what isn’t. But also in 2002, I joined a group called the Reverse Logistics Association, RLA.
And RLA, they got me up close with plastics and other recycling activities that are underway, I want to say with our conferences. But we’re talking about members like Amazon, Walmart, Ford Motor Company, Dell Computer, all of the big retailing manufacturers are part of recycling. And the RLA is so far the only one large organization to read what’s going on. It’s kind of like an education, they even have courses.
That’s what I got started in 2002. It was just being up there in Alaska and we worry about throwing things away in Alaska. We’re like up there on top of the world and we get our groceries from Seattle, we don’t grow the groceries there. It’s 20 below zero in the winter time, that’s how I started.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: We’re talking about some myths, can you explain some of those myths to us?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: People think most recycling is just thrown out anyway. There’s a lot of percentages here. Less than 10% of materials are estimated to be thrown out, once they arrive at a recycling center. There are two reasons people toss materials contamination, unclean items, like a greasy pizza box. You can’t throw a greasy pizza of box away, it’s just trash. No one’s going to recycle it, they can’t get the grease out, other things like that. Plastic bottles, you get your plastic bottle and look underneath the number if it’s number three, four, five, six or seven, it’s the wrong kind of plastic that can be done something to.
There’s things like glass. Now, glass is not plastic but glass it doesn’t get recycled as much as you would think. A lot of glass is just ground up and winds up underneath water pipes or electric lines or it’s part of a roadway, they’ll mix it in.
And recycling, it’s just so interesting how it does help people. You need to do this recycling, I found out to get rid of the landfills. I didn’t realize we’re running out of space in America and Alaska, in all of America, for landfills. There’s just not enough landfills around to throw things away in.
Basically, I found out about plastics. Recycling plastic uses about two thirds amount of energy to make a new one. So it takes less energy to make a new piece of plastic, that is some of the things I learned along the way up there in Alaska at the Reverse Logistics Association. That’s where I got my education before I started teaching about reverse logistics in Alaska and at American Public University.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That was quite interesting Oliver. I was reading an article by [Adam Green] and quoted Chris Wirth, who is the VP of marketing for AMP Robotics. And he said each year approximately 90 million tons of extremely useful recyclable products are thrown away and sent to landfills.
To me that is very troubling. And he also said that by 2050, if we don’t change our habits, there will be 12 billion, with a B, metric tons of plastics in landfills. Why is it so important to start looking at plastic waste reduction and recycling now?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: It’s a good question to ask now. For me who’s been around this thing for 18 years, it’s an old question. But a lot of people, people next door, they don’t really understand why we do this. That’s why, again, I work with these organizations that do plastic recycling through the RLA like Ford and other companies.
But, plastics are one of the most versatile materials that we really make use of just to talk about that. They’re all around us, whether we’re at home, we’re at work, or even go shopping, you’re on a holiday, there’s plastic everywhere. And as you may know, Wanda, there are many types of plastic and many types of plastic that can be recycled, but not many people are aware as why environmentalist and waste experts such as myself to a degree became a lifetime members of organizations that do these things.
There are so many reasons to recycle plastic, that’s the thing we’ve got to worry about. Plastic make a huge amount of our solid waste, 30 million tons thrown out every year. Where plastic, it takes ages to break down. Do you know it takes 500 years to 1,000 years for your plastic bottle to turn back into nothing but dirt?
It is truly amazing that you just put it in the landfill and you know what you’re doing, you go to waste facilities and they’re really overburdened and it just leads them one problem to another, it’s harmful to the environment. And if things weren’t enough, plastics get in the ocean.
Have you heard about the floating island of plastic out there in the Pacific? You know how big that thing is? I will tell you how big it is. You know what the size of Texas looks like on a map? Okay. Double the size of Texas. Now think about that for a minute, Texas is big enough and you’ve got this island out there that’s just floating around all linked together, it’s killing fish. And if you’re out there having a nice sail and your sailboat, I think it’s from Hawaii, it’s not off the coast immediate Hawaii, but it’s between Hawaii and land.
But if you’re in a sailboat and you’re sailing along, having a nice vacation and you hit that thing, it’s going to take a long while to figure out how to untangle everything and get out. I just imagine how things are doing that. There’s a lot of things that plastics, some can be recycled, some cannot.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: You said some can be recycled and some cannot. Do you see manufacturers switching to the types of plastics that are recyclable? Why would they make plastics that are not recyclable?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: It costs money. It’s cheaper to make it in that sense, that’s what is used to be cheaper, but they are trying to figure out how to do it. For example, that nice plastic water bottle you started drinking let’s say 10, 15 years ago. Nice hard plastic bottle. You can bang it on a nail and drive a nail, it was hard like a glass.
Well, you go to the grocery store now and you pick up your bottles of water and you start to drink it and you squeeze it. It’s like, holy cow, you got to be careful holding it when you put the lid off because you’ll squeeze the water out. It is so skinny, so thin. They are trying that, they’ve done it, they’re recycling the type of plastic that was used and this plastic can be recycled, they are doing that.
And they’re learning how to use plastics for things like compact discs to plastic forks. Now plastic forks are not supposed to be good, but they are redoing plastic forks that can disintegrate into other chemicals that can be recycled into plastic forks again. And the medicine bottles they’re repackaging. And disposable cups are changing, they used to have disposable cups that last forever, Styrofoam, and milk bottles are the same but they are changing. They are trying to change, but boy it costs a lot of money. It costs a lot of money
Dr. Wanda Curlee: As always money’s driving the bottom line. And they’re out to make a profit, but they also need to be good corporate citizens of the environment as well. So other than AI, what are some other ways to reduce plastics? Is it conceivable that we will eventually recycle all plastics?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: No. How about that? You like that? No, no, no, no, no, no. Well, not in my lifetime and maybe not your lifetime. Probably the next 20 years maybe somebody might get close to it, but there are so many different types of plastic and the chemicals they’re made of and it is hard to recycle those.
A lot of reasons add to it, you see plastic bottles are just nice clear plastic bottles. Well, there’s some chemicals that are added to it and you might have a plastic bottle that’s it’s a nice little color. It may be green, it may be orange, it maybe a little light blue, isn’t that pretty? Well, the chemical that makes that color is not recyclable. And so you boil down this thing for the recycling and then you got the plastic going here, and all mixed with it with this color thing, the chemicals, it causes it not to be recyclable, it’s not cost-effective, it’s just not cost-effective.
So I don’t think in the foreseeable future, I’ll say give me a timeframe. I would say for all the plastics we got up there it would probably be another goodness, 20 years, maybe 15 years before science says, “Here’s how we can do it cost effective.” You have to remember cost effective and who’s going pay for you to do it. Your company? Is Dell going to do it? Is Ford going to do it? Is Walmart going to do it?
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So how does robotic AI help with recycling plastics? And is it cost-effective right now?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: That’s a good one. Robot recycle sorting uses artificial intelligence and robots to sort plastics, right now, they’re using AI robots to sort plastics. So humans, so you and I, if we got hired, don’t have to do it. With advanced cameras and technologies, these companies are counting on robots to sort in the recycling and they reduce health risk, also.
Because according to a report I read recently, recycling workers are twice as likely to be injured on the job as any other worker. Now think about it. You’re standing there taking plastic bottles off or pizza boxes off the assembly line. And you’re going to get injured twice as much as regular workers in a job.
But then if you think about all the waste that’s thrown away, people throw away things that are sharp. People throw away saw blades, they throw away saws, they throw away nails, they throw away things that they grab through their gloved hand and all of a sudden there’s a nail sticking in. Or they might accidentally pick something up to throw in a real trash bin and it’s a saw. And if you don’t do it right, you just sliced your leg.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Well, I had no idea that they had to deal with such hazardous materials. I’ll call them hazardous materials.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: It does get that way, and robots and AI, the cameras and the high-tech computer systems they’re being trained to recognize specific objects, that will guide the robot’s arm over a conveyor belt and reach and get that target so if there’s something there to get to save, a robot can do it versus a human finger. And those oversized fingers got sensors on them and they’re attached to an arm, it’s like a person. It can snag the can, it can snag the glass, it can snag the plastic containers, and any other recycled items you program it to.
Recycling robots are still assisting the humans now, but companies have found that they can work two times as fast as humans. So industry leaders are developing robots that can identify different colors, textures, shapes, and sizes of the plastic materials. And this technology, it just increases the output, doubles the value, a lot of things happen, but you might lose your job.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: But hopefully there’s another one that you can do. Yes. We’ve talked about how AI will be replacing a lot of humans, but it will also create jobs just as all technology has done.
So you said it’s complicated to sort plastics because there’s all kinds of other stuff in there. And you did talk about the AI learning, but you said it was programmed does somebody have to program the learning in there or does the AI learn on its own once it’s programmed once?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: That’s a good question. What I’m finding in my studies of AI and robotics since about 1985, when I started in AI. And I found out that we were programming in early days of AI and the robotic system, we programmed it to go look for certain things.
We used to have our AI robot systems in the early days that we programmed to go pick up this red thing or this blue thing or follow these instructions. We would take the actual 17 feet of Army regulations and type it in to code words for the AI system to follow those rules. However, as you know, humans don’t necessarily need regulations to do your work. There are some things you do that aren’t in the rule book and the robot would make a mistake.
That’s like the early days of AI robot cars that would be driving down the street and all of a sudden they turn left because the highway is black, and so is the shadow of the tree on the left-hand side that it would turn left and follow right into the tree.
Now what we’ve changed, we learned, the last 15 years, we got smarter, the programming is such that we program the computer to study behavior patterns, to study traits. We tell it you’re supposed to go pick up the dirt on your floor. You’ve got a robot that cleans your floor, it’s not going to go pick up your dog. It knows certain things to look for, dust particles and stuff like this. But it’s not going to go pick up the Hershey bar you dropped on the floor at Christmas time, as you were giving them out to everybody, it’s just going to bypass that.
It can be programmed but then there might be different kinds of dust or dirt that it picks up. You can pick up dirt but then he might drop cat box litter. You drop that on the floor, it reprograms itself to, “I think I’ll pick this up.” And it picks it up. And if you don’t want it to pick it up you can stop it.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. Interesting. So I read about a Canadian company it’s called Metaspectral and it’s sorts plastics. That’s what they do. It received grants from the Canadian government of $300,000 to really get it going. Do you see more grants coming along from the government? How about from venture capitalists?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Now that is a good question I hope everybody hears, for those who want to start their own research program. My AI company, my Army AI center, 1985-1990, the US government gave me $20 million, now what I’m going to do with $20 million? I went out and bought every upgrade computer I could and we analyzed systems, but the government today is even more so.
The US government is deeply involved in recycling because it’s environmentally friendly. The government is worried about the environment. They’re worried about the air pollution, the water pollution, ground pollution, all kinds of pollution. And they have money available for disposing of waste material. One of their sources, a really great source is something called Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, acronym DSIRE. DSIRE. So look up DSIRE and it has government environmental grants at all the levels of government high level and low level as well as state level too.
And if you’re a member of the Reverse Logistics Association, guess what? The government is part of their membership, too. And so all of these companies, Dell and Walmart and individuals like me and you, we’re college professors. We’d like to have some government research grants to study something on recycling. Well, you can go straight to the government or go through the organizations like RLA, and you get linked into, here’s a government possibility and you fill out the application form and go for it.
We’ve had that happen in the past. I had one of those research grants at University of Alaska, I filled out to do some recycling studies. And it’s not easy you got to fill out a lot of forms but it is there. And it’s not the president or Congress, it’s the whole government, everybody’s involved, whether you’re on the Democrat or Republican side, it’s something everybody is doing, so it is out there.
Even the Ford Foundation has a large sum of money for grants, programs. Now, very little of it is available for private business, a little business is not going to make it. But if you’re smart enough as a professor, for example, and you want to do some research, you can contact Ford for online grants and the Foundation Center, and it’s a wonderful resource for searching for private money that you can use. There are companies out there like Ford Foundation who are really trying to do things like this.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s incredible. I had no idea. So what are the pros of robotic sorting? You talked about humans getting hurt and robots obviously can’t get hurt, but I assume there’s also cons. So could you give us some more pros and cons on robotic sorting?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: That’s interesting, the pros and cons change over the last 20 or 30 years. But let me talk about the pros and cons in terms of maybe some advantages, there’s reduced reliance on manual sorters, for example, manually sorting things. Materials recovery facilities across the US are struggling to hire and retain workers. People don’t want to go to work. This pandemic has caused people not to go to work, don’t want to stand elbow to elbow picking up stuff off an assembly line, so we need something to help out.
They’ve started using AI-powered robots and they replaced about one or two workers by doing that. So a robot can do the work of nearly two people, so it’s very worthwhile. There’s quicker sorting that’s going on, it’s a good thing. Current robot techniques they use cameras to look at each product coming off in the line.
And they use data that’s been stored over time and analyze where it goes. This also means that robots can continue to be updated and add data to materials. It gets smarter, it learns going down the line. The benefits are again increasing and soon they’ll be able to make necessary adjustments on there on too, so there’s improved knowledge.
Optical sorters, for example, can detect specific types of materials. They increase their knowledge over time, they learn. The AI system as you talked about before, they’re learning what’s coming down the line. So all sorts of potential, good thing for doing this.
Another advantage is robots are able to store data, lots of data, and they store more data than you and I can. For example, I remember reading on this pandemic, for example, during a pandemic research this last year, there are about 500 professional articles a day around the world on how to help fix COVID-19 or something related to it.
Well, nobody can read all those. They’ve got AI systems that are reading those, finding things that work and sending that summary, those specific things from all those articles each day, 24 hours day, to the professors and the scientist and the research labs. And that’s one of the reasons we came up so fast with a cure for the COVID-19, AI was part of this cure.
And then obviously like quality control, AI system you’re more precise, it’s quicker, plastics being picked out and other things the plastics being picked out, it just does it better than a human. Now, of course, like you said before, humans will lose their jobs.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Dr. Hedgepeth and I are chatting about plastic waste reduction, recycling and artificial intelligence. So Oliver, how fast do you see this industry growing?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: The growth is phenomenal they’re coming for your trash, robots now is coming for your trash. There’s 64 million tons of glass and plastic and paper that’s dirty and mind-numbing work and they’re being replaced. There’s a company Matanya Horowitz, AMP Robots. They’re trying to take humans off the job, I think, but they’re just building better systems. Their Virginia recycling center in Roanoke, I live here in Virginia, it looks like a spider web, spider, it’s a 300-pound robot that sorts through unending lines of trash.
I think in the nation 600-plus recycling facilities. We’ve got recycling facilities, 600 of them. And they’re processing all these millions of tons of waste, so it’s underway. Like I said, the government understands it. They want to have a better environment during this pandemic when people were stopping working, all of a sudden you could see the mountains around Los Angeles because there was no emissions from the cars. People started thinking, “Wow, we can have a cleaner and a better society.”
And so the discussion started doing that. So it is increasing for a number of reasons, not just scientists who want to do something because they’re scientists, not just because experts and professors of recycling like me, who belong to Reverse Logistics Association and other organizations that study it and we are interested in it. It’s because it seems to be naturally a natural growth, we’re getting healthier. It’s like people living longer.
My parents died a lot younger than I am today and we’ve got better medicine treatment for us to live to be a 100. I look at a TV program every morning, they used to announce the birthdays of certain people around the country 56, 70. Now they only announced the birthdays of people that are 100 years old. It’s going to take me 30 years to get on that show to say, “Hey, Oliver’s birthday is today.” It is amazing as people have increased their living abilities, so our living arrangements is being increased by AI and robotics.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That’s hard to believe if we treat our environment well then we, as a consequence, become healthier. So do you see companies that make plastics altering their methods to make sure that the plastics are being recycled?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Plastics are one of my specialties. There are only two kinds of plastic that are commonly recycled in the United States, plastic soda bottles and something called polyethylene terephthalate or PET, and other plastics found in milk jugs and detergents. There are all kinds of plastic but we can’t recycle everything.
As I mentioned before, there are dyes and flame retardants and other additives that we can’t get out of there right now, there are chemical bonds in the plastics. There are some things that just are a problem. Chemical recycling is increasing these days, but understanding the plastic is still a problem, but we have solutions and people are working it, that’s the key thing people are working it.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So, Oliver, my family, my husband goes to the plastic recycling area about once every two weeks takes all our plastics. But do you see the average consumer of plastics doing this and increasing over the years?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: No. You like that? No. No. Well, I look around, okay, now there’s only 340 million people in America. Let’s see. There are 10 houses next to me, I have a recycle can out front. I recycle plastic. My wife is really adamant. She washes the plastic out and puts it in there and the can for the cat food, who scrubs it clean enough to eat out of and recycles. But down the street when the recycle man come, he doesn’t stop at any house, but our house.
And as a sample, I’d say, okay, there’s 10 houses, one out of 10 is recycling. I don’t know if that’s a national average, I haven’t really looked into it. But as I talk to my son and my daughter and I talk to friends and I talk to you, you’re recycling. But you and I are kind of biased, we teach it, we work about it, we research in it and we write articles on it, and it’s fun.
But I would say the average person is still unsure of it. And let me throw the pandemic, this is 2021. That pandemic that came in 2020 scared people from touching people, scared people from touching things. It scared our recycling plant because I went to visit them in 2020. And they said, “We don’t really want to pick up your plastic bottle that you handled and you might have COVID-19.” Now, yes, our people there wear gloves but, “We might breathe something.” They weren’t sure in 2020.
So it’s like, “We’re just not going to pick it up.” And guess where it went? The recycle can went to the trash pile. And I saw the recycling area, I looked into it here in Richmond and I saw all these big mountains of plastic that were being pushed together and squished together by a machine and put in a trash truck and driven away.
People were scared. Now we’re getting better at it. The recycle people have become more involved. And I think there’s more news items in the newspaper and news media that are saying, “We need to do a better job.” We realize we were doing a better job with our own human life, human life that we’re coming back together. And we want to have a safer life too. From not only just COVID-19 and other things, but other little germs that come from dirty stuff.
So I think it will increase, in my neighborhood it’s one out of 10. It’d be interesting to see what it was in the country, but there are 600-some recycling centers doing plastic stuff. So that tells me a positive thing that companies are out there pushing it. So we may get some advertisement flyers in your mailbox and for those listening, please do use them.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: It’s quite a distance for my husband to take it where they capture all the plastics. But Oliver back in the early 1900s there were no plastics. Do you see us as a culture or as the world migrating back to those types of materials?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: No. Not totally. Well, not totally. We are getting better, but people are growing more crops, they’re learning to do things. And can I tell you a funny little story? One of the funny Reverse Logistics stories had to do with repurposing as a repurpose. And repurposing, reverse logistics works in the world of repurposing too. The product is a cardboard box and a cat. Cardboard box and a cat. A cat in a box.
Now, if you have a cat in the house, you may already know part of this story. What happens after Christmas or a birthday party with all those boxes that contain presents. For a while, they’re lined up this side of the living room or dining room or patio. And while all the humans had fun socializing, your cat had fun taking up residence inside one of those boxes. It’s estimated that Amazon alone shipped nearly 2 billion boxes last year, cardboard boxes.
We’re not talking plastic, we’re talking old fashioned boxes. It appears also that cats have a love for cardboard. And there’s a study by some Dutch animal shelter that cats came to an animal shelter, and it was given a box to do better coping with the box to acclimate their stress and feel better.
And as a father of young children and grandchildren now with memories as a young boy, it seems that boys and girls also have an affinity toward cardboard boxes that sit in front of TV and or get in a refrigerator box or a TV box. Refrigerator boxes, oh my God, that was a home I could live in or a washing machine box. So there’s a lighter side to the story to all this as cardboard. But I don’t think we’re going to go back to a lot of earlier things, I do believe we’re getting increases in cardboard but I also see plastic is changing.
There are plastic changes, we’re not going to go back to have no plastic. There is an organization. Oh gosh, there is an organization that’s pushing to kill all plastic bottles. It really is. It’s out there. I read the flyer and they’re all over my internet and email wanting me to join. Well, I joined to read what they’re doing and they think I’m out there to kill plastic, there is a group to kill all plastic. Well, if they do that, they kill millions of jobs of people making it, using it, manufacturing, storing stuff in it.
Can you imagine going into Walmart or Amazon or a grocery store and trying to find something that’s not in a plastic bottle? How many plastic bottles are out there or plastic containers? My chocolate syrup used to come in a glass bottle, now it’s a plastic bottle. In fact, I have some bottles of old stuff from grocery stores sitting on my bookshelf, they’re old but they’re only five years old. Because after 80 years they went to plastic and they don’t make it anymore, so it’s going to be interesting to see what happens.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: The healthcare industry relies on plastic. I can’t imagine what would happen with them if plastics went away. So, Oliver, thank you very much for joining me today on this exciting topic of reducing plastic waste and how AI is used for that. Do you have any last words you would like to leave for our listeners?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, thank you again for this opportunity, it is a very important topic. And in my opinion it is difficult not to see recycling as an area of particular importance. As society continues to grow while simultaneously working to improve our environment and reduce harmful climate impacts.
The only logical solution is really a well-established recycling infrastructure that allows the reuse of multiple materials from plastics to glass and paper and do look up companies that recycle. Okay, look up Reverse Logistics Association, RLA, okay. You will find tons of material, read what’s going on, witness what’s going on in the global world. By the way, recycling is also called in Europe, circular economics.
Think about that, circular economics. What is circular? Well, you take your bottle. Oil helps make it. It turns into plastic and it continues to be plastic and turns into other things. By the way, that plastic can also turn back into the shirt you’re wearing, or the eyeglasses you are wearing. There are so many new ways of using that plastic bottle, maybe not for a plastic bottle, but eyeglasses, they can be recycled also later, so it’s circular economics. So that’s what’s going on in the world and people need to keep really abreast of it. And keep recycling that plastic bottle please in front of your house.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: There you go. There you go. And thank you to our listeners for joining us. We have some exciting podcasts coming in the area of artificial intelligence, so stay tuned and stay well.