Artificial Intelligence

Plastic World

Can technology save us from the weight of our waste?

By Bobbie Hartman

Fall 2017

Plastic bottles, coffee cups, lids, forks, and shopping bags make life a lot easier when we’re on the go. But buying convenience has a negative impact on our landfills—and oceans.

Right now, says UC Santa Barbara’s Roland Geyer, an assistant professor in environmental science, “the economics of recycled plastic don’t work” because cheap natural gas and crude oil make new petroleum-based plastic products cheaper than recycled ones.

Clearly, our plastics problem needs a new solution. If we can’t curb our need for convenience, can technology save us from the weight of our waste? Here are two different approaches.

Bring on the Bots

Robots to the rescue? Denver, Colorado–based AMP Robotics recently combined artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to help make recycling facilities more efficient. As co-mingled waste of all kinds travels along a conveyor belt, the robot identifies cartons and grabs them using a robotic arm outfitted with suction cups.


Amount in billion metric tons of plastic created since plastic production ramped up in the 1950s

Source: University of Georgia


The robot works three times faster than humans, which helps dramatically reduce sorting costs. It could be deployed to sort different types of plastics as well—and, thanks to AI, it can keep getting better at its job.

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Plastic Power

Could our cars run on our plastic trash someday soon? Scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry are looking to do just that: turn the polyethylene plastic—used in toys, bags, and packaging—into fuel.

The process involves breaking down the polyethylene plastic into a clean, useable product—not an easy task because polyethylene is difficult to degrade. But the team recently developed a promising method using alkanes (a byproduct of the oil refining process) as catalysts to break down the chemical more cheaply and efficiently.

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Photograph by Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images