We have just started to discuss and try to understand what will be the potential impacts of the rise of robots in our lives and societies. But, the pace of change is too fast and very soon we will have to deal with the real consequences rather than the potential ones. As I use to say in my lectures “Fasten your seatbelts, the fourth industrial revolution is already here and disruption is the rule, not the exception”.
In manufacturing, it is obvious that circular economy is absolutely dependent on robots and their precision, efficiency and endless optimization. I could easily say that circular economy in manufacturing processes either it will be robotic or it will never be realized. But, this is not that obvious in waste management industry, although it should be.
Robots, sensors, and driverless cars are already creating the waste management networks of the future.
Commercial robots are already present in waste management and recycling, but the industry seems to ignore or underestimate their importance as well as their role as disruptors. Wall-E, the small waste disposal robot that was re-arranging garbage piles in the relevant 2008 Disney movie, is already outdated.
We have already robots capable to separate materials much more efficiently than any worker. Powered by machine-learning and by the rapid evolution of sensors, the efficiency of separation will soon become unimaginable for certain materials. Robots are already used to dismantle mobile phones and tablets. in hundreds of pieces, maybe highlighting the end of certain types of e-waste. Driverless waste compactors that manage landfills working all night long are tested. Autonomous road cleaning robots have been operational for several years, although their commercialization is still restricted. Robotic waste collection is on the way. Just imagine the impact when it will be combined with driverless garbage trucks or unmanned small vehicles for door-to-door collection. Robotic household assistants for people in need are already tested and part of their job is to bring the garbage to bins.
If we want to understand what will be the robotic transformation of the recycling and waste management industry, it is important to understand that today we are just at beginning of a disruptive tsunami. Still, we can put some ideas on the table.
How about exoskeletons that will make waste collection as easy as playing with a joystick? In this case, we could have the benefits of robotics without job losses.
How about household robotic waste bins, capable to separate materials at source? This is going to help people to advance in source separation, minimizing the cost and the need for end-of-pipe solutions.
How about robots that will stimulate reuse and repair for selected products and material streams? Definitely, such robots will drive the circular economy.
How about robotic kitchens that will minimize food waste? Why not robotic waste treatment on a household or apartment building level? How far are we from plastic recycling robots equipped with 3D printers, capable to produce new products and realize closed loops for certain plastics?
But even if the questions above seem somehow unrealistic or too much for the next 4–5 years, the real transformation is already here and it is more radical than we think, and maybe, less radical than required. Because, right now, most of our thoughts are limited on how to incorporate robots in the current recycling facilities, schemes, and business models. In reality, the gradual dominance of robots in recycling will create new business models and industrial patterns that will be based on the robotic evolution. In this case, the robots will set the scene for the whole facility design and the business models involved.
Robots, those brilliant technological advances are putting some old hard questions.
Robots, sensors, and driverless cars are already creating the waste management networks of the future. Working with big data sets and powered by artificial intelligence, those networks are already redefining the waste management and recycling industry. The more I am trying to understand their benefits and the risks involved, the more I realize that those brilliant technological advances are putting some old hard questions.
Robots for what? Robots will determine the future of manufacturing and waste management according the problems we will ask them to resolve. If we ask them to support circular economy, reuse, waste prevention, repair and modular — eco design, they will do it and a wasteless future will be realistic. If we ask them to support the business as usual approaches and the current fast production — fast consumption linear economy, they will do it and a much more wasteful world will be created, while the speed of resource depletion will be definitely higher due to the advanced productivity of robots.
Robots for whom? If we use robots to improve the quality of working conditions, replacing or eliminating hard work and health — safety risks, they will deliver a better working environment, a more healthy life and maybe more time for leisure. If we use them just to trade labor for profits, creating a jobless future for millions of people, they will deliver a social nightmare.
How about public engagement? All the serious efforts towards circular economy target public engagement as one of the most crucial aspects for the long-term sustainability of circularities in massive consumption products. There is a high possibility that the massive involvement of robots will create the impression that the problem can be resolved in the traditional “out of sight — out of mind” way, without the social shift required. On the other side, robots can be definitely used for further, deeper and more efficient public engagement, since they can stimulate advanced communications with specific target audiences, mainly in the younger part of the population.
How about robotic design? If robots will be like the typical e-waste we are used too, with built-in obsolescence, fast cycles of circulation and substitution by new models, software updates that work only in the new models and limited or not at all modular design and design for disassembly and reuse, then the new waste stream will be the Robotic Waste. Definitely, the science of robotics and the plethora of new materials, the evolution of 3D printers and the advances in modular design provide the framework to avoid such a horrible future. In reality, there are all the necessary conditions to develop reusable parts and reusable robots.
How about Extended Producer Responsibility? We know very well that in products like robots and gadgets, the only way to avoid a wasteful future is to apply Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes as early as possible, before the end of life products become a massive output of the supply chains. In robots, the relevant EPR schemes concern some of the biggest and most powerful companies of the world, and either the EPR scheme will be a global one or it will never be successful. In this view, maybe robots will be the first product for which a global EPR system will be applied.
The questions are here and their answers have not been determined yet. Fortunately for all of us, the answers do still depend on our actual involvement as citizens and recyclers. It’s time to consider that the robotic future of recycling is inevitable, but its social and environmental footprint is subject of a big debate that has already started.
Some parts of this text have been published in a blog post in Zen Robotics