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Robots replace humans as recycling sorters

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MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT, GREAT LAKES AND ENERGY
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Three new robots have begun sorting recycling for a three-county region of the northern Lower Peninsula. Kate Melby, the spokesperson for the public works department in Emmet County, where the robots are based, said the machines are making up for a shortage of human labor.

"Working the sorting line is a tough job," she said. "Even the attraction of working at an award-winning recycling program hasn’t been enough to lure prospective employees.

“We can’t get enough people to do it. We’ve been short of people for years now, so when we had to replace our 10-year-old line, we were like, ‘We should see if we can get some of these robots.’”

The county got a grant from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to fund the new robots, in addition to contributions from local industries, governments and development funds.

Melby said the spidery-looking machines -- named Allie (for aluminum), Brian (after a beloved public works department employee) and Carl (who came from the factory pre-named) -- do impressive work.

“They are really good at identifying things. It’s quite amazing,” she said, “how badly squashed one of those flimsy water bottles can be, and they’ll still recognize that it’s a water bottle.”

About 95% of the materials sorted for recycling in Emmet County ends up back at Michigan businesses for further use, said Melby. That decreases consumption of new resources and avoids paying to bury waste products in landfills, she said.

EGLE, the Michigan department that oversees recycling efforts, said it expects more robot sorters in Michigan in the next few years.