• Project ReCircE helps conserve resources
  • BMU funding for recycling project

Plastic waste is a problem. Worldwide. The reason: Plastic is used most often in the construction of some complex product, e.g., cars, refrigerators, shoes, or smart phones. Material analysis, separation, and recycling represent one solution. This is where project “Digital Lifecycle Record for the Circular Economy” – ReCircE for short – can help. The aim is to develop a comprehensive recycling method using artificial intelligence. One element in the project is the digital product pass. The pass is designed to provide transparency along the entire chain of reusable materials in highly developed products to facilitate separation and plastic recycling.

The devil is in the detail
Sorting technology for the recycling of plastics in the form of packaging, films, or bags is already available using near-infrared spectrometry. Such systems can detect the most common polymers and then sort them automatically. “However, it doesn’t work for the plastics built into complex products that have a great diversity of materials, some of which may also contain harmful substances,” said project leader, Dr. Christiane Plociennik, from DFKI’s Innovative Factory Systems research department. That is one reason why manufacturers, for quality or cost considerations, leave recycled products on the shelves and choose instead to work with new plastic granulates. In theory, the molecular chains of plastics can be used up to 20 times. But, the recycling process must be improved significantly if this is to happen. “The concept behind our digital product pass combines the potential of machine learning with the sensor-based sorting methods,” said Plociennik. “This is where ReCircE comes in.” The project is part of DFKI’s AI for the Environment and Sustainability (DFKI4planet) Competence Center funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU) under the “Beacons of AI for the Environment, Climate, Nature, and Resources” program.

Theory and practice in one network
Participants in the ReCircE project include: DFKI, TU Darmstadt, Fraunhofer IWKS, the GreenDelta company, and Papier-Mettler in Rhineland-Palatinate. Fraunhofer IWKS (research facility for materials recycling and resource strategies) has a sorting plant that can use infrared technologies and 3-D object structures to analyze the composition of waste. “Now, AI is entering the picture through this project: We aim to use sensor data and machine learning methods to train the plant,” said Plociennik. AI can recognize the individual molecule chains and process the molten plastic so that in the future, it breaks down into its respective fractions. The aim is to produce four or five pure types whose quality is comparable with primary plastics. The Papier-Mettler company has agreed to put the new process to the test in practice. Initially, the proportion of recovered recyclable plastics in bags and simple films is to be increased from the current 80 percent to almost 100 percent. The recycled granulate is planned for later use in high-quality industrial films.

Digital product pass
Until now, facilities like Papier-Mettler had insufficient information about which ingredients went into a certain product and, in case of doubt, separated it out. In 2013, 57% of the plastics were incinerated (energy recovery). “This is where the planned digital product passport can help,” said Plociennik. “All participants will be informed about each station in the material cycle – about the materials, the processing, and the disposal.” The knowledge gained from the ReCircE research project will benefit industry via the SmartFactoryKL.  There, the circle of partners plans to further develop the technology and implement it in the Production Level 4 vision of tomorrow. “Resource efficiency is important to companies, but also to our vision for the production of tomorrow,” said Prof. Martin Ruskowski, head of DFKI’s Innovative Factory Systems department and Chairman of the Executive Board of SmartFactoryKL. “A digital product pass hopefully has the potential to enable all materials to be recycled in the future.” But this also requires the cooperation of many companies worldwide. “Of course, there is still a long way to go,” said Plociennik. “But every long journey begins with the first step!”

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