Robot to divert a million aluminum cans from landfill every year

The Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) is funding the development of a can-capturing robot at a California material recovery facility (MRF).

Caglia Environmental sorts single-stream recyclables at the MRF. The robot designed by EverestLabs is expected to capture a little over one million used beverage cans (UBCs) a year.

CMI used funding from its members Ardagh Metal Packaging and Crown Holdings to finance the two-year equipment lease for Caglia, which will share with CMI half of all revenue from the UBCs captured with the leased equipment.

This lease program is the latest in a several-year CMI effort to demonstrate the potential additional revenue for the recycling system through capturing mis-sorted UBCs and to spur the installation of additional can-capture equipment in MRFs.

“We are excited about the lease model because it highlights that aluminum beverage cans are consistently one of the most valuable recyclable commodities and further exemplifies how this recycled beverage container pays its own cost of recycling due to that high market value,” said John Rost, vice president of global sustainability and regulatory affairs at Crown.

“CMI research has concluded that without the vital revenue from UBCs, most MRFs would not be able to operate without a change to their business model.”

The potential to capture mis-sorted UBCs at MRFs is significant. CMI’s 2020 research, “Aluminum Beverage Can: Driver of the U.S. Recycling System,” found that up to one in four aluminum beverage cans is mis-sorted at a typical MRF.

CMI also supported on-the-ground testing in 2022 at five loss points across three diverse MRFs. This testing found an average loss of seven to 36 UBCs per minute, which represents an annual average revenue loss of $71,900, with a payback period of three years per the return-on-investment calculator that CMI commissioned and published online for MRFs to use.

Even at a MRF like Caglia’s at the Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer Station (CARTS) in Fresno, there is the potential to capture additional cans. This facility, which focuses on continuous improvement and has a recently upgraded single-stream sort line, will place the leased robot on its “last-chance line” to capture UBCs mistakenly sorted to material destined for landfill.

“We put EverestLabs’s robot on the last-chance line and have it focusing on aluminum beverage cans so that it’s picking ‘gold’ out of the trash,” said Corey Stone, plant maintenance manager at CARTS.

“This lease provides a no-risk, no-cost way for Caglia to advance its goal of capturing all recoverable material coming through its facility. EverestLabs’ real-time and easy to use analytics platform, alongside an easily retrofittable robotic cell with zero disruptions and guaranteed highest recovery in the industry, ensures all possible UBCs are recovered. With CMI wanting to recycle more aluminum beverage cans and Caglia becoming a recycling industry leader, this program is a win-win for everyone.”

Caglia estimates with previously conducted vision studies and analysis that EverestLabs’ robot will capture 32,000 pounds of UBCs per year that otherwise would have gone to landfill. This is equivalent to collecting a little more than a million UBCs per year or around three UBCs per minute of operation.

Caglia will share with CMI 50 percent of all revenue from the cans collected via the leased robot, including the revenue from the sale of the UBCs and the revenue from California’s beverage container recycling refund program (i.e., deposit return system).

“Considering metal recycles forever – with 93 percent of recycled aluminum beverage cans turned into new cans and recycled aluminum 94 percent less carbon-intensive than making primary aluminum – it is imperative that recycling sortation facilities capture all cans for the aluminum industry to buy and recycle,” said Jens Irion, CEO of Ardagh Metal Packaging – North America.

“We are proud to have instituted a circular financing model for the textbook example of the circular economy – the aluminum beverage can. The revenue from the cans captured with the leased equipment can be used to finance even more can capture equipment at additional MRFs.”

Now that EverestLabs’ 3D depth-sensing camera, AI and robot have been installed at Caglia’s Fresno MRF, the RecycleOS data platform is delivering daily reports on the number of mis-sorted UBCs each day, along with the economic value of these cans and the greenhouse gas emissions saved from recycling them.

So far, the equipment is seeing up to 1,400 UBCs per day and recovering a majority of them so they go into the circular supply chain rather than going to landfill. Caglia, CMI and EverestLabs plan to provide updates with further data after the equipment has operated for a longer period of time.

Caglia plans to use the experience with this robot to see how else it can deploy technology at its MRF to maximize its recovery efforts. CMI intends to support additional can capture equipment at MRFs with the lease model and will use learnings from this first lease to refine its approach to can capture equipment financing.

Along with this first lease, CMI has also funded grants from The Recycling Partnership with capital from Ardagh Metal Packaging and Crown. The five grants funded in 2021 doubled expected performance with 140 million aluminum beverage cans captured each year by the equipment installed with the grants. Earlier this year, CMI announced that Ardagh Metal Packaging and Crown provided funding for additional grants that will be awarded through The Recycling Partnership.