Rise of the machines: ZenRobotics

Following its success internationally, artificial intelligence designed by ZenRobotics is poised to support the Australian waste sector with efficiencies and higher fraction purity.

The fear of robots taking over society in some dystopian future is a cliché-ridden notion that harks back to the 80s Terminator franchise.

Almost 40 years on from the iconic production, robots by and large still serve as an adjunct, rather than a threat to human existence.

While some modern futurists like Yuval Noah Harari go as far as to suggest human consciousness as we know could change over the century thanks to robots, this reality is far from the contemporary.

For example, futurist Bernard Marr argues critical thinking, creativity, strategy, technology management, installation and upkeep are skills robots can’t do well.

While some can be resistant to change, robots are poised to support the recycling workforce by taking menial tasks off their hands and creating new jobs.

That’s according to Juha Meiskonen, Head of Sales at ZenRobotics. Based in Helsinki, Juha has seen that in many cases, obsolescence of roles like picking empower those workers to take on more challenging tasks such as site management.

“Repetitive tasks are often more suited to a machine where the downsides of being a human could be getting tired, not being focused or being in a dangerous situation,” Juha explains.

Based in Queensland’s southeast, Robots in Waste has been working with ZenRobotics since its 2014 inception. ZenRobotics was founded in 2007 and entered the waste sector around 2010. The company has been most active in Europe since then, but expanded to Asia and North America around 2014-15.

Robots in Waste, which distributes ZenRobotics and other technologies locally, is now looking at accelerating its presence in the Australian market.

In traditional industrial automation, robots operate in defined, structured environments. In waste treatment, the process is less predictable, with complex waste stream compositions and harsh working environments such as temperature changes, dust and dirt.

Artificial intelligence (AI), however, has changed the game. According to ZenRobotics, unlike car manufacturing, waste processing is a chaotic, unstructured environment that is extremely difficult to automate. The company was pleased to take on the challenge, working to develop a robot that could match, if not exceed, human perception.

In 2010, ZenRobotics pioneered its own AI product based on the latest research in the field. In developing the solution, ZenRobotic’s ZENBRAIN hardware was designed to be flexible and adaptive to recognise, grab and sort objects from the waste stream. ZENBRAIN can not only perform complex tasks, but also handle collisions.

Juha says that what is unique about ZenRobotics is the company developed its own machine learning algorithms.

“Robotics in manufacturing requires a homogenous knife, clean environment and we wanted to apply the same efficiency of robotics to an industry which is more chaotic and heterogeneous.”

This, he says, is where the ZenRobotics system was developed to readily identify and recover objects, much like a human can with hand-eye coordination.

Juha says that initial development and testing involved training the robot to recognise new fractions. Now, operators can do this at their own accord, training the robot to recognise fractions in a similar fashion to a human.

Over the years, ZenRobotics expanded to Europe, Asia and North America. While Robots in Waste deployed a ZenRobotics system in Australia in 2017, it is hoping to increase this significantly and has already received extensive interest from a range of companies.

In addition to providing materials recovery facilities with increased efficiency and productivity, the machine can be run 24/7 with constant speed.

Additionally, the sophisticated technology aims to improve the purity of end fractions with sensors and AI software allowing for versatile sorting capabilities. Juha says this may come in handy when end users need to increase their purity to achieve a better price per tonne. End users can train the robot to sort specific objects, not just materials.

AI and digitisation also produces more data on the waste, which may help companies improve and monitor their operations. Robots in Waste’s Jim Duncan says that the digitisation of waste will help drive robotics forward, as the recycling sector moves from a feeling-based operation to a data-driven philosophy.

Two products that have proved popular for ZenRobotics internationally are the fast picker, suitable for municipal solid waste, and the heavy picker, ideal for commercial and industrial and construction and demolition waste.

The heavy picker uses the company’s own robot design with AI software that can be easily upgraded and in-house support guarantees a safe investment. Optional features comprise sorting belt speed control adaptable to the waste stream in addition to a feed rate control for upstream feeding and dosing. On top of replacing manual processes, the heavy picker can replace excavator hours, adjust waste sorting tasks and provide hybrid sorting.

The Fast Picker’s robust and compact design is suitable for demanding environments with an efficient solution for quality control. A single robot arm can simultaneously sort four different fractions to achieve up to 98 per cent purity.

The sensor includes NIR, 3D, hi-res, an imaging metal detector and VIS sensors. With a single sorting bay, the Fast Picker can be retrofitted to existing materials recovery facilities for different conveyor widths and multi-lane conveyors.

Software upgrades will also help future-proof the technology to work with various sensors into the future. With this in mind, Jim remains excited about the prospect of revolutionising the recycling sector with faster and smarter machinery.

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Protection from PFAS: ResourceCo

As researchers attempt to gain a better understanding of the long-term effects of PFAS, ResourceCo’s Andrew Manning outlines a new engineering initiative.

In December 2018, a Federal Government sub-committee outlined nine recommendations to improve the country’s response to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination.

Recommendations included improvements to voluntary blood testing programs as a source of longitudinal health data and establishing a coordinator-general with the authority to coordinate government responses.

With research to gain a better understanding of the long-term effects of PFAS exposure still ongoing, recovery and re-manufacturing company ResourceCo has invested in a multi-million-dollar purpose-built state-of-the-art hazardous waste disposal facility.

The $5 million double-composite-lined disposal cell is designed by engineers to accept and dispose of a range of toxic contaminants such as PFAS.

The disposal cell’s footprint covers nearly two hectares and is located at Southern Waste ResourceCo at McLaren Vale, approximately 35 kilometres south of Adelaide.

Andrew Manning, ResourceCo Group Environment Manager, says the project was three years in the making. He adds that ResourceCo is collaborating with the South Australian EPA on project delivery.

“The new cell certainly raises the bar in environmental and engineering performance to accept some of the new and emerging hazardous waste streams generated from contaminated sites, and reflects best practice landfill design and construction,” Andrew says.

Construction of the new disposal cell commenced in mid 2019 to the highest liner performance standards, Andrew says. He adds that the design is in full compliance with new South Australian EPA landfill guidelines, released in 2019.

“After assessing and determining the contamination level of the PFAS materials, we can then, in accordance with EPA guidelines, act and deal with it directly,” he says.

PFAS has become a major concern to the environment, humans and animals worldwide, Andrew explains, with the manufactured chemicals used in a variety of products.

“As PFAS has been commonly used in household products and specialty applications such as non-stick cookware, paints, textiles, coatings, food packaging, firefighting foams, hydraulic fluid and mist suppressants, affected sectors expressing interest in the new cell are widespread,” Andrew says.

He adds that PFAS has been used for products within the commercial and industrial, government, defence and aviation sectors.

“Perfluorooctane sulfonate, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorohexane sulfonate are currently the most common chemicals belonging to the PFAS group, and this facility is equipped to accept all these substances,” Andrew says.

According to Andrew, the double composite lined disposal cell is a new design for the South Australian marketplace and is the only one of its kind to be built to date.

“It offers a higher level of environmental performance to traditionally lined disposal cells,” he says.

The cell uses a multi-layer liner system consisting of three different types of liners made from processed shale materials, high-density polyethylene and geosynthetic clay liners.

This specific combination of liners and leachate collection and extraction systems, Andrew says, provides a high level of confidence that all leachate generated, collected and removed from the cell for evaporation will be safeguarded from the environment. This prevents groundwater contamination.

“We know PFAS compounds readily dissolve into water, which means they can travel long distances from the point of generation. Any impacted water needs to be captured and managed appropriately,” Andrew says.

“Improved cell engineering means it has both primary and secondary leachate collection and extraction layers in place, facilitating an increased level of environmental performance.”

Contaminated water is recovered and removed through the extraction layers, Andrew says, before being diverted into a secondary holding and evaporation ponds.

“Residual PFAS contamination can then be concentrated into sludge, recovered and removed from the evaporation ponds and sent offsite for further destruction,” he explains.

“The double-composite-lined disposal cell allows landholders to actively remove and clean up contaminated sites, and take the hazardous waste away to a purpose-built facility that is of the highest standard to better protect the environment.”

Australia has been working since 2002 to reduce the use of certain PFAS, with other countries phasing out or already discontinuing their use.

“Many industries are already getting in touch with us to find out how we can help, as they review sites where potential contamination has occurred and future remediation is needed,” Andrew says.

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DELWP proposes EPA Act and land-use planning integration

The Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) is proposing updates to the state’s land-use planning system to bring it in line with the EPA’s new environmental protection framework.

According to a DELWP statement, the proposed updates will ensure the Environment Protection Act 2017 (as amended to commence on 1 July 2020) and its subordinate instruments function at commencement, and that effective interaction between the environment protection framework and planning system is maintained.

“This includes amendments that will integrate updated requirements for the management of potentially contaminated land within the planning system,” the statement reads.

Proposed updates include changes to Victoria Planning Provision clauses that refer to instruments under the Environment Protection Act. They also include updates to Ministerial Direction No. 1 – Potentially Contaminated Land, and Planning Practice Note 30: Potentially Contaminated Land.

Specifically, DELWP is proposing a requirement that applications provide adequate information on the potential for contamination to have adverse effects on future land use and an assessment confirming the environmental conditions of a site are suitable for proposed use and development.

Ministerial direction is also being amended to incorporate reference to new instruments under the Environment Protection Act. This includes a new preliminary risk screen assessment, and an environmental audit that can be scoped.

“This amendment supports the policy reforms outlined in recommendation 14.2 of the EPA Inquiry,” the statement reads.

Additional changes include new subordinate instruments such as an Environment Reference Standard, and updating references to EPA publications including Best Practice Environmental Management Guidelines.

“These updates have been developed in collaboration with the EPA and deliver on commitments in the government response to the Independent Inquiry into the EPA. They follow on from extensive public consultation held to inform the development of Victoria’s new environment protection laws,” the statement reads.

DELWP is inviting feedback on the proposed updates through the Engage Victoria website until 5 May.

After receiving submissions from the public, DELWP will consider the feedback and finalise updated planning provisions in June 2020.

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Wastewater steel slag found to enhance concrete strength

Researchers have shown how a by-product of steel manufacturing can be used to treat wastewater and make stronger concrete, in a zero-waste approach to help advance the circular economy.

Produced during the separation of molten steel from impurities, steel slag is often used as a substitute aggregate material for making concrete.

According to an RMIT University statement, steel slag can also be used to absorb contaminants such as phosphate, magnesium, iron, calcium, silica and aluminium in the wastewater treatment process, but loses its effectiveness over time.

“Engineering researchers at RMIT University examined whether slag that had been used to treat wastewater could then be recycled as an aggregate material for concrete,” the statement reads.

“The concrete made with post-treatment steel slag was about 17 per cent stronger than concrete made with conventional aggregates, and eight per cent stronger than raw steel slag.”

Water engineer Biplob Pramanik said the study was the first to investigate potential applications for “sewage-enhanced” slag in construction material.

“The global steel making industry produces over 130 million tonnes of steel slag every year. A lot of this by-product already goes into concrete, but we’re missing the opportunity to wring out the full benefits of this material,” he said.

In the study, civil and water engineering researchers found the chemical properties of the slag are enhanced through the wastewater treatment, allowing it to perform better when used in concrete.

“The things that we want to remove from water are actually beneficial when it comes to concrete, so it’s a perfect match,” Dr Pramanik said.

“While there are technical challenges to overcome, we hope this research moves us one step closer to the ultimate goal of an integrated, no-waste approach to all our raw materials and by-products.”

Civil engineer Rajeev Roychand said the initial study was promising, however further research was needed to implement the approach at a larger-scale, including investigating the long-term mechanical and durability properties of enhanced slag.

“Steel slag is currently not in widespread use in the wastewater treatment industry – just one plant based in New Zealand uses this by-product in its treatment approach,” he said.

“But there is great potential here for three industries to work together – steel making, wastewater treatment and construction – and reap the maximum benefits of this by-product.”

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AORA Annual Conference

AORA’s 2020 Annual Conference, held 24-27 November at the Crowne Plaza in the Hunter Valley, NSW, will feature a line up of national and international organics experts.

Each plenary session will focus on one aspect of the organics industry, seeking out differing views and options for the future.

AORA National Chair Peter Wadewitz said the conference will be a prime opportunity to network with industry leaders and gain insights into the latest opportunities in the organics recycling industry.

“The AORA Conference is a forum for education, discussion and networking related to organics recycling. It is also an opportunity to celebrate outstanding achievements in the industry,” Mr Wadewitz said.

“I look forward to catching up with many friends and colleagues, and hearing the best ideas for our industry from across Australia and around the world.”

For more information click here.

10-year extension for Cleanaway City of Sydney South contract

Cleanaway will continue providing general and hard waste collection services to the City of Sydney South, under a 10-year contract extension with council.

According to a Cleanaway statement, seven vehicles and 21 staff have been added to the company’s Hillsdale Depot to support additional services, with a total of 86 Cleanaway employees now servicing the city.

“With the new agreement, Cleanaway will now be providing essential waste services including commingled and green waste recycling to the entire City of Sydney, both North and South, as it was previously known,” the statement reads.

General Manager Solid Waste Services David Clancy said Cleanaway is proud to providing council and residents with essential waste services.

“Thanks to the entire Cleanaway team that has worked to deliver the new contract extension during these challenging times,” he said.

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NSW and Fed Govt reach new bilateral agreement under EPBC Act

Major project assessments are set to be streamlined under a new bilateral agreement between the Federal and NSW Governments.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the new Bilateral Assessment Agreement will reduce the risk of Federal and state government duplication under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, while maintaining strong environmental safeguards.

“The changes are being made within the current Act, and do not form part of the wider EPBC review under Professor Graeme Samuel,” she said.

“They help all parties to understand what is expected of them in protecting the environment and the responsibilities they face in putting forward major projects.”

The new agreement includes harmonisation of the way proponents ‘off-set’ environmental impacts through the provision of alternate habitat areas.

“The NSW Biodiversity Offsets Scheme will now apply to all projects under the Bilateral agreement, and requires companies to contribute to the Biodiversity Conservation Trust that funds appropriate environmental protections to achieve strategic biodiversity gains across the state,” Ms Ley said.

According to NSW Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes, the bilateral agreement is just one element of ongoing reforms designed to provide greater certainty, timeliness and transparency to the NSW Planning system.

“This agreement will mean environmental protections are applied more consistently than ever before to deliver better environmental outcomes,” he said.

“It will also help to achieve a single, streamlined assessment process that provides certainty for industry and investors by eliminating double-handling delays.”

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A growing family: Method Recycling

Method Recycling has introduced a new bin to its portfolio to support small and medium office spaces.

When one enters the University of Melbourne halls, Qantas domestic terminals or Westpac offices, the last thing one expects to notice first is a bin, waste “tragics” aside.

But Method Recycling has well and truly bucked the trend, with colourful, eye-catching bins designed to enable lasting behaviour change.

Lee Bright, Method Marketing Manager, says that Method has always focused on helping organisations to create a culture of shared responsibility.

“We’re not trying to find a quick fix, but create a lasting change,” Lee says.

As a premium, design-led flexible working space in London, The Office Group provides a number of smaller shared spaces such as offices, working lounges, meeting rooms and kitchenettes. Last year, the business looked to Method to obtain a suitable bin system, but it was clear there was a gap in its existing product line.

Lee says that the message was loud and clear and the in-house design team got to work on designing a 20-litre bin just as elegant and effective as its esteemed 60-litre unit. Soon after, the Method Twenty was born, embracing Method Recycling’s core values of visibility, standardisation and consistency.

“The draw of the Method bin has always been behavioural change, and the more interaction people have with the bins consistently, the more this creates an unconscious habit,” Lee says.

Moreover, Method bins offer bin liners hidden from sight, with lid options to suit every space.

The staple Method 60 is ideal for open plan communal areas like office floors, breakout spaces and large kitchens.

Lee says that conversely, the Method Twenty is particularly suited to small office spaces such as meeting rooms, studio offices or kitchenettes where waste sorting is needed, but at a lower volume.

“Method bins are designed to last for years and not break down, in addition to being recyclable at the end of their life.”

Lee says Method Twenty embraces the use of more than 80 per cent recycled polypropylene, an increase on previous models which use 50 per cent. Last year, she says Method used more than 26 tonnes of recycled plastic across its product range.

“Believing in the circular economy, we couldn’t justify creating a product out of recycled materials just because it would look good. We needed to make sure the bins were recyclable at the end of it,” she says.

Lee says for this reason polypropylene is the only plastic ingredient instead of a mix.

“We trialled plastics and mixed bale recycling and we really found that keeping the plastic pure is the best way to ensure that it’s having a positive impact now and into the future.

“We’re working on finding a clear recycled polypropylene which would bring us to 100 per cent, but that’s still a bit down the road.”

Method Twenty features Method’s Patented Bag Retainer System, colour-coded lid with clear graphics and Method’s signature style. Each of these features need to be optimised for the size and use of the bins.

With the reduced capacity taken into account, the proportions of the bins have been adapted to accommodate various kinds of waste. Additionally, the chute design has been reconsidered with an enhanced handle on the back to make emptying a whole lot easier.

Lee says that depending on the customer’s requirements, Method can provide custom labels and signage.

“Recycling isn’t going to be a quick fix, it takes a system and a little bit of planning, but when you strike the right mix, you can really have quite a significant impact,” she says.

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Temporary buffer zone set to become permanent in Ipswich

Ipswich City Council’s temporary local planning instrument (TLPI) is set to be permanently incorporated into council’s forthcoming planning scheme.

Due to expire next week, the Queensland Government has extended the TLPI for a further two years, during which time Ipswich City Council is expected to have a new planning scheme in place.

State Planning Minister Cameron Dick said extending the “waste protection” planning tool would provide certainty to the development industry and wider Ipswich community.

“The Queensland Government will work closely with the new Ipswich City Council to have the provisions incorporated into its updated planning scheme. This will give permanent effect to the waste protections we’ve put in place,” he said.

In 2018, the state government exercised its legislative powers to mandate a 750-metre buffer zone between existing, approved or planned residential areas and new and expanded waste facilities including landfill.

The decision came in the wake of an Austin BMI landfill proposal and Opposition parliamentary motion that the state government “call in” the application.

The proposal, which was met with some community opposition, would have seen a former disused coal mine at New Chum converted into a new landfill and waste transfer station.

According to Bundamba Member Elect Lance McCallum, extending the TLPI while council finalises its new planning scheme will ensure elements of council’s current planning scheme relating to waste activities remain suspended.

“The existing TLPIs are effective, so it’s vital we continue to regulate what can and cannot occur in these areas,” he said.

“I know how important the issue of waste management is to our community, which is why I got straight onto the Planning Minister this week to ensure existing protections were extended.”

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SV extends Recycling Victoria Infrastructure Fund EOI

Sustainability Victoria has extended its Recycling Victoria Infrastructure Fund expressions of interest period to support projects aimed at improving recycling and local reprocessing of paper and cardboard, plastics and glass.

According to a Sustainability Victoria statement, local government authorities are now eligible for the grant, with expressions of interest extended to 8 May.

“By extending the closing date of the expressions of interest we are optimistic this will be beneficial to all stakeholders and the funding program,” the statement reads.

Funding is available for infrastructure projects (new infrastructure or upgrades) that increase the capacity and capability of Victoria’s resource recovery sector and/or improve the quality of available materials for reprocessing and remanufacturing.

Eligible projects include infrastructure and equipment for new facilities, upgrades or expansions to support greater sorting and decontamination of recovered priority materials.

Additional eligible projects include infrastructure and equipment for new facilities, upgrades and expansion to enable reprocessing of materials to a higher quality suitable for manufacturers and end-markets, and infrastructure and equipment for the remanufacturing of recovered priority materials into new products.

Applicants may submit more than one application, however, each application must meet the eligibility criteria and demonstrate how its project addresses the merit criteria and objectives of the program.

“All streams of funding require a co-contribution from the applicant. Your organisation must make a minimum co-contribution of $1: $3 ratio (Government: Applicant) towards the total project cost,” the statement reads.

“Your project can receive funding from other government sources (including federal, state or local). However, this funding cannot be included in your co-contribution.”

Applicants will receive an outcome notification by June 2020, with successful applicants invited to submit a stage two business case by July. Grant recipients will be announced in December.

Funding limits: 

Paper and cardboard: up to 25 per cent of total project capital cost, capped at $8 million per project

Plastics and glass: up to 25 per cent of total project capital cost, capped at $3 million per project.

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