The Register-Guard June 14, 2019: Innovative Eugene business Bulk Handling Systems develops robotic waste-sorting machines by Aliya Hall

Ever since China stopped accepting U.S. recycled materials at the end of 2017, the future of recycling has been hanging in the balance. But Bulk Handling Systems in Eugene isn’t giving up that easy — in fact, the company is working on new, innovative ways to combat the recycling crisis.

“China went away, but there’s still a demand for recycling at a municipal level,” said Peter Raschio, Bulk Handling Systems marketing manager.

In the future, Raschio expects to see more domestic infrastructure in place to process the materials, but for now, the company is working on using technology to make the recycling process easier. Nationwide, there were 262.43 million tons of solid waste in 2015 — the most recent year for which data was available. In Oregon, there were 3.60 million tons of waste, according to the Statewide 2016 Waste Composition Study.

“Most of our development has come out of necessity in terms of the industry having an issue and trying to resolve it,” said Rich Reardon, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s been that way going forward, any time there’s a problem we find a way to solve it. We’ve been fortunate enough that every solution we come to market with is something unique, mostly because that’s what works the best.”

Since its founding in 1976, Bulk Handling Systems has been changing the recycling game by introducing a unique tri-disc design that helps separate and sort materials. That innovation is the bread and butter of the company’s operations.

At this point, Bulk Handling Systems is one of the only companies that uses a color camera and sorts material off the belt to better organize the material types for reuse — setting the company apart in the recycling industry.

Bulk Handling Systems uses optic sorting with infrared and X-ray scans to help sort recycling plastics and paper from garbage. They determine the different polymer types that the plastic is classified by. The machine does it through a “discriminate pick,” meaning that anything made of that composition will be detected. The color camera comes into play when material, such as milk jugs or detergent bottles, comes down the line, because while they are classified as a specific plastic, they are two different polymer types and need to be sorted accordingly; this also is true for fiber, such as determining cardboard from newspaper.

Although competitors also use optic and air sorting — using air jets to separate material as it comes off a belt — another aspect to Bulk Handling Systems’ operation that sets it apart is the scanner detects the material as it comes off the belt, to sort it immediately. Other companies have their scanner on the line, but if the material rolls or moves, it can be sorted incorrectly.

Also helping the company innovate is National Recovery Technologies, or NRT, which is one of the companies Bulk Handling Systems has acquired, Raschio added. National Recovery is a leader in optical sorting and has a patent on its methods.

“It’s a competitive advantage for us,” he said.

Another piece of sorting equipment used is a robotic sorter called the Max-AI, which can replace a human sorter. Although this technology uses cameras, the real breakthrough is the machine’s ability to process multiple images every second through its AI to identify materials and make decisions near real time.

Reardon explained that along with labor rates, there also is a safety concern in dealing with quasi-hazardous material — particularly when people don’t recycle correctly — and automating that job while having human supervision has a huge impact on the industry. A Max-AI can make up to 65 picks per minute, while manual sorting can achieve around 30 to 40 picks per minute.

“It’s difficult to maintain these numbers throughout a shift,” Raschio said. “However, when our customers are thinking about adding a Max-AI solution to their operation they look at more than a pick-to-pick comparison. Staffing these facilities is a constant challenge — the work is dirty, dull and dangerous, and the positions are difficult to fill and even more difficult to keep filled.”

Videos of the Max-AI has made the rounds across the internet, receiving more than 300,000 total views on YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and other forms of social media.

RePower South, a recycling and recovery facility in Berkeley County, South Carolina, started up a new facility on April 30 with Bulk Handling Systems equipment. It is one of the most advanced in the world, with the automated system processing mixed waste at more than 50 tons per hour.

“With (National Recovery Technologies’) optical and Max-AI technology, we have an almost unlimited degree of flexibility to create a wide variety of high-quality products to serve multiple markets,” said RePower South president Scott Montgomery. “The technology maximizes the recovery and quality of those products and with Max-AI technology there’s no real need to expose people to this work.”

The most high-tech material recovery facility in Oregon is Pioneer Recycling Services in Clackamas, which uses the optical and robotic sorters, but Bulk Handling Systems equipment also is in place in Salem, Portland and Eugene.

“In general, Oregon is behind other West Coast states when it comes to its recycling system infrastructure,” Raschio said. “As an example, since the launch of Max-AI in 2017, we have sold 25 robotic sorters in the state of California and two in the state of Oregon.”

Bulk Handling Systems has sold more than 70 Max-AI Units, including recent installations in Australia and Norway. The robot launched in April 2017, and recently Bulk Handling Systems launched its new Max-AI AQC (for autonomous quality control) design and its collaborative robot, or CoBot, solution, the Max-AI AQC-C.

“We want high recovery, purity of products and to minimize the operating cost to do this,” Reardon said. “When we’re doing these innovations, we’re doing so to make recycling not just profitable, but workable. Otherwise, wanting to recycle isn’t enough; we want to do these things but if there is no market value for the expense of recovering a plastic bottle, then it won’t get done.”

He added that one of the main benefits of his job is that it really does help the planet. One of the markets Reardon’s interested in seeing evolve is the merging of recycling and energy production. The industry is starting to see more of turning organic waste into methane gas that can be put back into generators.

The company has two facilities in Eugene, one for corporate offices and the other for fabrication. Bulk Handling Systems has 185 of its 207 employees in Eugene.

For a single system, Bulk Handling Systems will ship out 3 million pounds of steel from its facility, and each job can cost around $50 million. Conservatively, Raschio estimated Bulk Handling Systems ships more than 300 pieces of sorting equipment a year; one of its larger sorting systems itself accounts for 198 unique pieces of equipment. They normally expect to process and ship 6 to 10 million pounds of steel annually.

Ryan McGinnis, operations manager, has been with Bulk Handling Systems for 11 years in multiple departments. When it comes to the overall recycling process, he said the industry is focusing on the wrong thing. While it’s important to train people to actively recycle, he said the biggest change needs to be made in the way companies use technology to process the waste.

“Everyone’s so focused on single bin, but the more we’re finding out is our technology can pull out 75% of recyclables out of the waste stream that’s just garbage,” he said. “A lot of things are happening in the industry to make it a greener, more profitable footprint.”

Raschio added that recycling garbage is something people want to do and it’s not slowing down — neither is the output.

Companies that produce the “virgin materials” also are taking more responsibility now, Reardon said. Coca Cola, as an example, is taking more responsibility to use recycled products created from the waste that it made in the first place.

As the recycling landscape expands and changes, Bulk Handling Systems will be keeping up. McGinnis said there is always something new to do: “It’s a challenging environment and a fun place to be.”

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