San Francisco recycling center deploys new robots and scanners to handle holiday trash

Santa's elves might make the items on people's holiday lists, but it is recycling companies and trash haulers who whisk away the wrappings and trappings that ends up stuffed into recycling bins at the end of the week. 

It's a tall order for the 175 workers at the San Francisco Recology recycling center in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood.

"Every day there are 650 tons coming through the door onto this tipping floor," said Robert Reed, a Recology spokesman.

"We see a 17 percent increase in total tons collected for recycling during the holidays," says Reid.

This year, the Recology recycling center has invested more than $7 million in technology upgrades. The worker-owned company installed four new robots and three new optical scanning machines to help the 175 workers at the center.

San Francisco, with its population of more than 800,000 people, produces some 5,000 tons of trash every day, during a normal week. Reed says more than half of it gets recycled.

With the added holiday load, new robots were installed in October just in time to lend a metal hand. 

"It's a robotic sorter. It's the first of four robots that we've installed recently in this plant. This one is looking for plastic boxes like a salad clamshell container," said Reed, pointing to a metal arm that was deftly plucking plastic boxes off a conveyer belt.

The robots with artificial intelligence and optical scanners cost $1 million each and can be programmed to pick out certain kinds of plastic containers. Reed says plastic is the most difficult to process.

"Plastic is not magnetic so you can't pick it up with a magnet. This does seventy, 7-0 selections a minute," said Reed. 

Also new this year, Reed says the San Francisco Recology Recycling Center became the first in the nation to get 3 state-of-the-art optical scanners that automatically separate plastic bags from paper.

The recycling materials also pass under a massive magnet that pulls out steel cans out of the stream.

Another sorter separates aluminum cans and glass. 

And yet another machine separates paper and cardboard which are the bulk, about 80 percent of all recycled materials the workers process.

At the end of the line, 14 types of products are bundled into bales. Reed walks past a massive stack of bales almost entirely containing plastic bottles. 

"Plastic water bottles and plastic soda bottles from one day in SF, these four rows," he says pointing up to the stack.

Reed says the new machines are necessary to better separate recycled goods for sale in the marketplace.

"China is no longer buying plastics, so it's a buyers’ market. The world now demands less than one percent impurities in the finished bales of recycling," said Reed. 

For Recology and San Francisco officials, the biggest holiday wish is that more residents will join them in their New Year's resolution: to increase recycling and reduce landfill waste 50 percent by the year 2030.