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Adoption and Implementation of Robotics in MRFs

Technology continues to make a huge impact on nearly every industry. In recycling and MRFs, the addition of robotics is shifting how sorting and recycling work gets done. Robotic solutions that were a curiosity just a few years ago have become more prevalent in the recycling industry, with uses across North America.

At Leadpoint, we’re watching the robotics industry and working with our customers to incorporate these inanimate workers alongside the sorters we employ as part of our recycling industry staffing solutions.

In this blog, we’ll look at how robotics have become a bigger part of the MRF world, including recent data and trends to watch over the next few years.

adoption implementation robotics MRFs

Robotics in Recycling – A Growing Trend

In May 2019, Resource Recycling compiled data on the number of robots currently working or recently purchased for use in U.S. and Canadian MRFs. At the time of their study, the number stood at 80. While not a huge number, this is a very new field: robots were first introduced in MRFs in 2016.

Since then, the recycling industry and Leadpoint have recognized the effectiveness of placing robots alongside humans to improve efficiency, safety, and productivity. Robots at work in multiple parts of the process allow operators to solve traditional problems in new ways.

Robotics Add Value to MRF Operations

It’s easy to see how robots and humans can work together to complete the tedious and dangerous work of an MRF sorter. Leadpoint is in front of this trend – our employees work side-by-side with robots at several of the MRFs we support.

Robots add value in other, less obvious ways. They make the sorting process safer by being programmed to perform repetitive tasks without error and to work in difficult situations that could put humans at risk. Robots can often sort with reliability and precision that matches human sorters. And because they can work without vacation or sick time, breaks or turnover, robots can have a positive impact on the overall cost of production.


Robots can add value to MRF operations, but it comes at a cost. While major players in the robotics sphere have not released their pricing structures publicly, reports indicate that one major manufacturer charges roughly $200,000 per robot, plus installation, freight, electrical and additional costs. The decision to add a robot isn’t one to be made impulsively! These are big investments that must pencil-out for each MRF.

Robotics – Numbers, Uses & Locations

Among the robotics manufacturers in the waste and recycling market, BHS, AMP Robotics, Machinex are the industry leaders in deploying this advanced technology. Bulk Handling Systems or BHS leads the way. As of May 2019, Resource Recycling reports the firm has placed approximately 50 of the 80 MRF robots at work today.

The dominant use of robotics has been assisting single-stream MRFs with curbside recyclables. MRFs make up over half of the current applications, followed by PET recycling and mixed-waste jobs.

Robotics have been installed in MRFs in 15 states and three Canadian provinces, with a heavy concentration in California. Other locales with more than two robotic systems include Florida, Ontario, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Evolving Technology

In addition to the current solutions on the market, robotics for use in MRF recycling plants are continuously evolving. We believe the near future will see the introduction of these capabilities:

  • Visioning systems: Independent of mechanical sorting arms, these systems provide waste studies and other back-end data in a much more affordable way than auditing.
  • VIS: Short for Visual Identification System, VIS provides ongoing material stream assessment to help MRFs meet audit and compliance requirements.
  • Recognition and sorting capabilities: These are constantly being improved upon, including the integration of VIS with optical sorters to improve material recognition.

While he full-scale use of robotics in MRFs is potentially decades away, Leadpoint’s high-performance work teams improve productivity and profitability in MRFs today. Working alongside robots, we are a powerful resource to make the recycling industry more efficient and safe.

For more on the use of robotics and humans in your MRF, or to learn about any of our recycling industry workforce services, speak to the pros at Leadpoint today.

One Response to “Adoption and Implementation of Robotics in MRFs”

  • Jeff says:

    Software engineer in training, working as a sorter; perhaps I can give my two cents given my incomplete exposure to the field.

    Recycling will be the one of the last areas to be completely automated for the following technical reasons: Unlike programming a truck to run autonomously, which has a huge number of ‘edge-cases’ when navigating traffic with discrete (which means it can be programmed on the fundamental basis of 1’s and 0’s) boundary conditions; to effectively replace sorters, a computer would need to be able to objectively “Feel” and “see” in ‘biological’ terms (unlike say, an optical sorter or a MaxAI, which uses fairly simplistic light reflection for plastic identification), an object buried under other recycling, then program a very intricate “hand” to grab an irregularly shaped and massed object that is moving on a conveyer.

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