Q. Where did the inspiration to start Recycleye come from?
Our two co-founders, Victor Dewulf and Peter Hedley, were both studying for a master’s degree at Imperial College London back in 2017. Victor was studying environmental engineering and Peter was studying computer science.
For part of his master's thesis, Victor came up with the idea of our vision system, which effectively scans and categorises each individual waste item using computer vision and artificial intelligence. He asked Peter for help and together they developed what became Recycleye, an artificial intelligence (AI) robotics tool.
Q. What does Recycleye do?
Recycleye’s solution performs the combined task of identifying, picking and placing waste material, allowing existing manual operations to be automated. Co-mingled waste materials in a materials recovery facility are scanned using leading-edge AI computer vision (Recycleye Vision), while an automated robotic system (Recycleye Robotics) physically picks up and moves the waste items to where they need to go.
Our robots are produced through a mutual exclusivity partnership with Japanese robotics manufacturer FANUC. FANUC makes the robots, then our team adapts them to make sure that they work effectively for waste management purposes. The pick speed of our robots is guaranteed to be at least 40 correct picks per minute, although it is closer to 55 in reality.
Q. What types of waste items can Recycleye sort?
Recycleye’s robots can sort across more than 28 material classes, including aluminium cans, cardboard, paper, and many plastics including HDPE and PET. They can handle a wide range of objects including aerosols, plastic bottles, tubs and trays, cardboard and beverage cartons.
Q. What kinds of clients do you have?
Most of them are private waste management companies, but we do also work directly with councils. In the UK, most councils will contract a private company to manage their waste solutions.
Depending on where you live, the degree to which your waste is sorted varies quite a lot, but sorted or not, your waste will end up in a material recovery facility. Material recovery facilities are sorting centres that tend to use very heavy machinery to do the bulk of the separation of waste into different categories.
The material recovery facilities perform quality control to make sure that waste items are in the right place, before shipping the waste to a different site, where it goes through reprocessing and the next phase of recycling.
Currently, Recycleye technology is being used by facilities in Scotland, Southern and Northern Ireland, England and France. Another four robots are due to be installed in Ireland.
The first Recycleye system in England was installed in Reading in September 2021 and was actually the first AI-powered robot applied to waste management in the country. It has already delivered considerable benefits to the clients operating the facility, including 55 successful picks per minute, improved material purity thanks to contamination of less than 1%, and a 12% increase in volume of target materials sorted.
Q. Do you have an international presence?
Yes, our first project was in France, before we had even done anything in the UK. We now have three robots in France and we also have projects in Australia, Italy and the US.
Depending on where you live, the degree to which your waste is sorted varies quite a lot, but sorted or not, your waste will end up in a material recovery facility.
Q. What kind of investment do companies need to make if they want to use Recycleye?
It depends how many shifts they run. For a facility that's running 24/7, the cost is actually pretty low given it is replacing manual pickers whose salaries are usually around £30,000. If you had three pickers on a full-time salary plus overheads, the cost of one robot would be less than a two-year payback period. We’ve also developed a leasing model, which means that the client would not pay more than they're paying for their manual pickers for the first two years of the contract, and significantly less in subsequent years.
Q. How is the business organised?
Today we're 35 people, the majority of whom are engineers, divided between machine learning, hardware and software. The machine learning team is continuing to develop the vision system. The hardware team is working on building the vision system and the integration between that system and the robot. The software team works on connectivity and builds dashboards so that our clients can understand the data that our systems are providing them with. We have a comparatively small commercial team, split between partnerships, marketing and sales.
Q. What challenges have you faced with scaling the business?
It’s a very traditional industry and many companies have some degree of hesitancy around the uptake of new technology like this, both on the AI side and the robotic side. The challenge has been convincing people that the technology does work and that it is the future of waste management.
Q. And what are the opportunities?
An obvious opportunity is the fact our robot has very low energy consumption. Unlike manual pickers, who need lighting and heating, it can work in the dark by itself.
While there are other companies in the waste management space, none of them are doing exactly what we do. A couple of companies make vision units that use AI, but they don’t attach them to picking. Other companies have started to develop robotics, but their AI isn’t as developed as ours. So, there is competition, but not a like-for-like product.
We’ve had two rounds of venture capital funding and are currently going for a third round – Series A. There’s a massive appetite from investors and we’ve got some great investors, who have been very supportive.
Q. How is Recycleye making the world a better place?
A big part of automation involves taking monotonous tasks away from people and upskilling them instead. Waste picking can be a dangerous job because of issues with needles and similar dangerous items. It's also very dirty. On top of the monotony, a material recovery facility is not a nice place for a person to be.
We are not aware of anyone losing their job as a result of us installing a robot. In one of our most recent installations, the client didn’t want to let go of any manual pickers. So, they retrained them to do less dangerous and boring roles in other areas of the plant, such as operating machinery or driving trucks. That’s definitely a focus we can apply industry-wide: how we can help individuals, upskilling them into higher paying roles.
Q. What are your future plans?
We are looking at new waste streams. For example, we're seeing a massive problem in all types of sorting facilities with batteries causing fires. Being able to solve this issue will be an important project, and one I'm really excited about working on.