Sorting is among the first steps in recycling and is critical for improving the quality and quantity of materials being recycled. Technologies such as autonomous optical waste sorting systems have greatly contributed to efficiency in recycling. With countries across the world prioritising sustainable waste management in their agenda, the recycling industry is witnessing a boom and so is the sorting industry, said Elie Sandros, Area Sales Manager Middle East & Africa, TOMRA Recycling Sorting. Talking about what drives innovation in the sorting industry, he said, “The rise in population and consumption leads to higher waste volumes which require high-performance solutions for efficient processing. Further, governments put the topic of sustainable waste management on top of their agenda and set up implementation plans for 2030, as is the case in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. So, one of the biggest drivers is the boom in the recycling business.” The global waste sorting equipment market is estimated to reach $1.84 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 12.4 per cent. While the wider recycling market is estimated to hit $530 billion by 2025.
Drivers of innovation
“We see strong demand for recycled PET flakes and pellets in the Middle East and Africa – stemming from recycled content trends in Europe. This boosts innovation because recyclers need to meet the higher quality standards which the EU countries require. But local demand is also increasing with major brands using more and more recycled content.”
Sandros explained how technology has revolutionised sorting by improving performance, while offering flexibility to adapt to customer needs. TOMRA develops its sorting units and software in-house to offer tailor-made solutions. “Let’s take the AUTOSORT, our flagship product and sorting allrounder. In the latest generation, our FLYING BEAM with SHARP EYE technology is now integrated as standard, which means a more stable and enhanced material detection is possible thanks to higher light intensity. This allows for increased performance in handling large volumes of waste and especially pays off in regions with dirtier infeed material because they lack separate collection systems for plastics and packaging.” He also spoke about TOMRA’s INNOSORT FLAKE sorter, which sorts plastic flakes by material and/or colour to create the purest mono fractions which can be turned into high-quality recyclates. Meeting different customer requirements and throughput levels, INNOSORT FLAKE comes in three sizes.
Role of Artificial Intelligence and robotics in sorting
According to Sandros, sensor-based sorting solutions are key to accelerating the transition to a circular economy as they are the most powerful systems in the market. “We mustn’t forget that Artificial Intelligence is built into these systems. Optical sorters have employed AI algorithms for over 30 years, but they are now experiencing another wave of technological advancement with the use of deep learning technology. Such systems offer significantly more flexibility to the operator, allowing them to choose the types of materials they would like to target in the sorting process or detect material that was previously not possible to detect,” he added.
As for robotics, a combination of valve blocks and robotic arms for quality control is the winning formula to increase product purity, Sandros noted, adding “Nevertheless, for full circularity, we need close collaboration and strategic partnerships along the value chain.”
The more resources we recover, the more we can use again to make new products. And the higher the product purity, the easier it becomes to replace primary raw materials with recyclates.
What does the future look like?
Everyone’s eye should be on municipal solid waste and dry recyclables. Automating the sorting processes for these waste streams is indispensable to processing higher capacities. Mid to long-term, it will help reduce overall costs and create a safer working environment for the employees. But there is also untapped potential for metal, PO, wood and textile sorting in the region, which we consider worth looking into.
Sandros said the outlook for 2023 is very optimistic. “Even though the world faces uncertain times, the industry remains focused on increasing recycling rates and recycled content. And we continue to build momentum.”
More and more plant operators recognise the many advantages optical sorting systems have compared to manual sorting: standard efficiency, higher throughputs, higher purity rates to fulfill increasing quality requirements, safe working environments, etc, he added. “Although we believe that we are still in the early stage in the Middle East and Africa, we are convinced that our industry has a promising future ahead.”