How Robots Can Unlock The Promise Of A Circular Economy

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March 2020

In February 2016, a former competitive sailor named Ellen MacArthur announced the launch of the U.S. Circular Economy 100, a network of major companies committed to redesigning their products and business practices to reduce waste. The American “CE100” builds on the work of an international group of companies, convened by MacArthur’s eponymous foundation, which has spent a decade working to advance the vision of a circular economy — a global industrial system without waste, in which products and materials are recycled and reused.

 Several iconic American companies have embraced the effort: Coca-Cola aims to make all of its consumer packaging recyclable by 2025 and has committed to collecting and recycling a bottle or can for every one they sell. P&G has pledged to ensure all of its packaging is 100 percent recyclable or reusable by 2030. Dozens of other companies have set their own goals. 

But there’s a problem: due to outdated and inadequate recycling infrastructure, there just isn’t enough suitable recycled material being collected and sorted to meet these ambitious targets. 

The waste coming into recycling facilities is a mix of paper, plastic, glass, and metal. Over the years, newsprint has decreased (in part, because of the declining circulation of print newspapers), and the use of cardboard and plastics has proliferated. Before these materials can be reused, they need to be carefully separated. Lightweight plastic bottles, for example, are composed of different materials than heavier, denser bottles, and flexible plastics are entirely different from rigid plastics. If you throw out two yogurt containers, one Siggi’s and the other a Chobani Flip, you’re throwing out two different kinds of plastic.

 Today, recycling facilities rely on workers to tell these plastics apart. It’s tough, dangerous work. Turnover is high. At a time when fewer countries are willing to accept America’s poorly sorted recyclable waste—in 2018, China, long the destination for the U.S.’s recycled output, raised purity standards and effectively ended trade—margins are low and so is pay. After years of under-investment, the recycling industry lacks the systems and capabilities to find a viable alternative. Many facilities are struggling to stay solvent; others are closing. Cities and towns nationwide are reconsidering whether recycling programs even make sense. As a result, many of the items you throw into the recycling bin actually end up in a landfill.

 In keeping with our focus on tackling big, sector-wide problems, SIP saw an opportunity for a transformative, technology-enabled infrastructure upgrade. We saw the chance to make a real difference for communities, for companies, and for the world—in a way that is uniquely suited to our hybrid approach of funding both technological innovations and large-scale infrastructure projects.

In 2017, our team seeded AMP Robotics at an early stage, a company that designs and develops computer vision and machine learning-enabled robotic “arms” that rapidly and accurately identify and sort recyclable materials. Last year, we followed up with a Series A round, joined by the prominent investment firm Sequoia Capital.

AMP’s technology automates the precise identification and sorting of municipal waste, e-waste, and construction and demolition debris. It uses machine learning to recognize different colors, textures, shapes, sizes, patterns, and brands. If a company like P&G needs a certain quality and color of plastic, computer vision and robotics has the potential to instruct the system to yield the right raw material. If a beverage maker like Coca-Cola wants to identify its own branded packaging in a landfill to improve product lifecycle management, it could have the potential to do that, too.

AMP’s robotics systems have already been installed in waste sorting facilities across the country, from California to New York, Wisconsin to Florida. 

And SIP is supporting them every step of the way.

At the outset, we brought in Alphabet computer vision engineers to evaluate and validate AMP’s technology. We then provided capital to help the company grow, something that’s outside the purview and skillset of traditional infrastructure investors. Now, with the tech ready, we’re looking to provide project financing for the large capital expenditures required to build recycling facilities that will scale AMP’s system and transform the industry by entering into contracts directly with consumer brands, something no venture capital firm would do. And, on top of that, we’re leveraging our unique convening ability to forge partnerships with large consumer companies that are searching for higher quality recycled goods. Since we are a holding company with longer-term goals of building infrastructure projects, no one else in the world of infrastructure or technology is playing as multifaceted a role as SIP.

It’s the perfect example of SIP’s hybrid, first principles-driven approach. We’re backing certain technologies — and helping deploy that tech to create the infrastructure of the future. We believe AMP Robotics is poised to revolutionize the recycling industry, empowering companies to achieve their sustainability goals and helping make the dream of a circular economy a reality.

The SIP team has long held conviction in using technology to enable recycling and “closed loop” supply chains. Prior to the launch of SIP, the SIP team supported a seed investment in AMP in 2017. In the 2019 round, SIP is joined as an investor in AMP by Sequoia Capital, a leading venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, and sustainable investors focused on cleaner recycling. 

We believe strongly that AMP’s technologies can lower MRF operating costs, increase landfill diversion rates, enhance the purity of commodity bales, and improve overall recycling rates. With a crisis forcing the industry to be more sustainable, AMP and SIP plan to be ongoing partners to scale this solution across the waste and recycling industry, working with MRF operators, companies using recyclable materials in their goods and packaging, and cities committed to zero waste goals and increased recycling rates.  

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