“Sorty McSortface” and “Sir Sorts-a-Lot” are part of Colorado robotics company’s quest to modernize recycling

Before the coronavirus started spreading, the Boulder County Recycling Center was having problems keeping fully staffed. The pandemic hit and people started buying more online, cooking more at home: more cardboard, tin cans and other items swelled the center’s incoming materials by 11%.

Enter two new workers who’ve made a big difference. They are two robots designed by AMP Robotics. You can call them Sorty McSortface and Sir Sorts-a-Lot, the winning names in a contest.

One robot was installed in April 2020 and the second was installed in June, said Cly Lewis, the center’s operations manager.

The equipment was financed in part by a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Recycling Resource Economic Opportunity Program.

“It’s been very helpful. We’ve certainly found that it’s been very successful in what we were seeking to capture as far as the material types that they’re designated to focus on and recover,” Lewis said.

And, she added, no people have been displaced. “But we have shifted people around and placed them in other positions, which has been beneficial too.”

Adding the two robots on the lines has allowed the center to shift people to more quality-control duty.

The biggest improvement, and one of the main goals, has been increased recovery of the correct materials and fewer items that buyers don’t want. Problems with unwanted items or contamination prompted China and other Asian countries in 2018 to restrict the import of certain recycled materials.

Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

Employees sort materials during a tour of Boulder County Recycling Center and AMP RoboticsÕs Cortex single robot system Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

“This facility has always tried to focus more on a domestic market. We probably were not as heavily impacted by the China embargo,” Lewis said. “However, there was also that reaction from our North American mills. They also started changing their quality or their standards, their expected composition of materials.”

AMP Robotics CEO Matanya Horowitz said that’s the kind of challenge his company’s robots are designed to take on. During a recent visit to the Boulder County facility, Horowitz watched the two Coretx robots rapidly pick out specific types of paper and plastic. He and his team have been working with the recycling center to assess the performance of the robot, Sorty McSortface, that has two “hands” to grip materials instead of the usual single grip.

“It’s been really good working with Boulder County, a nearby facility, that’s well run and where we can get good test conditions,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz started the company in 2014 and began operations in earnest in January 2015 after receiving a federal Small Business Innovation Research grant. The company has about 100 employees and offices in Louisville and Broomfield.

This year, Horowitz said AMP Robotics plans to expand geographically as well as add new team members to help make better robots. “Over the last two years, we’ve been working really hard to make this type of equipment standard, well accepted equipment in the industry.”

The company’s system is used in recycling facilities in Colorado, other states and in Canada, Japan and Europe, said Horowitz.

While studying robotics at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the California Institute of Technology, Horowitz grew excited about the potential of artificial intelligence and “deep learning.” A machine learns how to build patterns and perform tasks. The technology is used in autonomous vehicles.

Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

Founder Matanya Horowitz walks to inspect one of his AMP Robotics’s Cortex single robot system sorts discarded recycling at the Boulder County Recycling Center on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

“I just started to look around where this stuff could be useful,” Horowitz said. “I got really excited when I thought about its uses in recycling. When I started learning more about the industry, I started to see there are a lot of core challenges that haven’t been solved because people haven’t been able to create an automated system that could identify stuff.”

He was also interested in the positive environmental impacts of more efficient, economical recycling.

Horowitz said the technology helps address the basic problem of consistency: being able to identify and separate objects on the conveyor belts. Another fundamental problem is the cleanliness of the materials in the wake of the restrictions imposed by China.

“These countries need these commodities. There’s strong demand for plastics, strong demand for metals and paper,” Horowitz said. “Our robots can help facilities achieve high purities at a lower cost than a lot of alternatives.”

Lewis said the robots have made a difference for the Boulder County center. She said the center has been able to divert more than 180 tons of additional products thanks to the machines.

“Overall, we have seen improved quality of our fiber grades and are currently in the process of being able to quantify the quality improvements with numbers,” Lewis said in an email.

Last year, the recycling center, which has about 50 employees, processed 65,000 tons of materials. The daily volume is roughly 250 tons.

Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

An AMP Robotics’s Cortex single robot system sorts discarded recycling at the Boulder County Recycling Center Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Horowitz acknowledged concerns about automation displacing workers, but added that most recycling plants struggle with employee turnover and understaffing. He said working conditions are unpleasant because of the smells, garbage and the cold and heat because employees are exposed to the elements when garbage trucks drive in and out.

“If they’re not fully staffed, they’re not going to be able to operate as efficiently as possible,” Horowitz said.

Lewis acknowledged that recycling centers sometimes struggle with keeping employees because of the nature of the work. “The job of sorting and standing at the conveyor belt can be a difficult position. Sometimes it’s difficult to find people who come in and stick with it.”

The robots and people can both pick out roughly 80 objects per minute, Horowitz said, but people eventually get tired and slow down. “Robots can produce 98%, 99% pure products. People can do that as well, but they get tired and over time the quality erodes.”

AMP Robotics is working to expand the types of brands the robots recognize as they sort the recyclables. Horowitz said they now recognize about a hundred different brands and he expects the number to grow into the thousands.

Distinguishing between different types of brands alerts the robots to the materials they need to sort. Tracking the brands also lets companies know how much of their items are being recycled.

Another goal? “Getting the robots even faster,” Horowitz said.

Bails of end-product recycled materials are ...

Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

Bails of end-product recycled materials are ready for transport Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 outside the Boulder County Recycling Center. AMP Robotics’s Cortex single robot system sorts recycling materials so the end products are less contaminated.

Horowitz is optimistic about the recycling industry despite concerns that lower oil prices early in the pandemic spurred the oil industry to crank up its production of plastic. He said while cheaper prices for new plastic have driven down prices for recycled plastic, many companies want to use recycled materials to meet their own environmental goals and demands from customers.

Oil prices are rising. They were around $60 per barrel Thursday, up significantly from just a few months ago.

AMP Robotics recently raised $55 million from investors to expand its work. The Series B funding attracted interest from GV, formerly Google Ventures, XN and Valor Equity Partners, one of the main backers of Tesla and SpaceX, said Horowitz.

“As a Coloradan, I get very excited about the top-tier investors investing here in Colorado,” Horowitz said.

He believes it will become a broader trend as people start investing more in companies farther away from the coasts.

Late in 2020, AMP Robotics signed a long-term agreement with Waste Connections Inc. for 24 AI-guided robotics systems, its largest contract to date.

“It’s been very helpful. We’ve certainly found that it’s been very successful in what we were seeking to capture as far as the material types that they’re designated to focus on and recover,” Lewis said.


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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