Bollegraaf Group, a Dutch recycling company, is investing in Greyparrot, a UK AI startup that uses computer vision for waste analytics. This is another sign of the rush to speed up the adoption and transformative possibilities of AI.
The company that makes MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities) and “turnkey” recycling systems was founded in 1961 as a maker of baler machinery. In recent years, it has been experimenting with AI, opening an innovation test center in its home country of the Netherlands in 2021 and hiring an in-house AI team to work on integrating AI analytics with its recycling machinery, which has led to some commercial rollouts.
The London-based computer vision startup Greyparrot, which was founded in 2019 and has been to TC Disrupt battlefield before, has been working on and applying AI to waste management processes for almost five years to create what it calls “waste intelligence,” which is data on trashed plastics and other items. This is very important for making the product better so that recyclers can sell it. It can also be used to get useful (recyclable) materials out of mixed or contaminated waste streams that would otherwise go to a landfill or be burned.
Greyparrot’s second big goal is to use AI to reduce the world’s trash through smarter and more efficient recycling. To do this, it needs to switch from collecting data to making decisions as the AI engine that makes sorting and recovering machines work better. This is also very important because the world is making more trash, not less. This means that we need to be smarter about how we throw things away so that our societies don’t drown in a growing pile of trash.
In addition, over the past few years, several new regulations have been put in place in Europe that require packaging and other manufacturers to use more recycled materials in their products. This has increased the demand for better quality recycled outputs and kept it stable.
Greyparrot has mostly used its AI cameras to add new features to recycling plants that were already there. But the company wants future waste recovery facilities to be built from the ground up with AI built in from the start. It wants its technology, which is called the Greyparrot Analyzer, to be the brains of those operations. As a result, AI-powered data-driven analytics are becoming more and more integrated into how recycling facilities work. This is because there is a growing need to improve recovery rates, produce higher-quality outputs, and reduce the amount of waste that is, well, wasted.
For a while now, Greyparrot has been making APIs (also known as Greyparrot Sync) that can connect to the sorting and recovery equipment that its users use. Greyparrot’s AI-powered waste recovery system says that the new relationship with Bollegraaf is meant to speed up this process of integration (or digitization). This is because Bollegraaf has decades of experience with machinery and robotics.
Mikela Druckman, CEO and co-founder of Greyparrot, tells TechCrunch, “Bollegraaf’s big vision is to really speed up and lead the digitization of the waste sector.” “Bollegraaf is one of the biggest plant builders in the world. We are building all the infrastructure for waste management, like recycling and sorting facilities. Right now, we are also the biggest player in AI waste analytics.” By working together, we can speed up the digitization process and eventually build smart MRFs that are fully automated, adaptable, and change the waste industry by making it more efficient, recovering more materials, and producing better materials.
As part of a $12.8M strategic investment, the AI team is moving.
Bollegraaf is giving Greyparrot his own AI vision business, which has six employees. This is part of the strategic AI relationship the two companies are announcing today. Druckman says Greyparrot is buying “the AI models and also the team working on it” that have to do with the vision systems it built. The people it’s hiring will stay in the Netherlands, which is also where the UK startup will open its first office in mainland Europe.
As part of the deal, Bollegraaf is also investing $12.8M in Greyparrot in cash to get a non-controlling, non-majority share. Note: The company raised a $2.2M seed round in 2021 and then a $11M Series A round in May 2022. It says it has no plans to raise a B round at this time.
Druckman said they aren’t going to talk about how Bollegraaf’s investment works or how much of a stake they have, but she did state that there is a 50/50 split between the cash investment and the value being put on Bollegraaf’s AI business unit that is being bought as part of the deal. It looks like the going rate for hiring AI engineers is more than $1M per person.
Because of this, Greyparrot will be running Bollegraaf’s current AI operations. But she said that these will be looked at individually to see if the application should be moved to Greyparrot’s technology or left alone. While Greyparrot’s kit will be used for all future AI applications in Bollegraaf’s plants.
Under the terms of the partnership agreement, Bollegraaf will be Greyparrot’s global distributor and strategic partner for its AI camera system hardware. This hardware is already being used in 30 to 40 recycling plants and waste streams in 14 countries to get analytics. The startup says its technology reaches about 70% of the market in Europe, which is still its main market for customers. It also has a foothold in the US market and hopes that the new strategic relationship will help it grow faster there.
Druckman said that the goal of Bollegraaf’s AI and Greyparrot’s system were the same. He also said that the two teams had made “a lot of complementary” technology. When the two companies work together, the business will be able to speed up our AI. “They have already done some research and development that we can use to speed up our own development,” she said. “We’re always making new versions of our Analyzer hardware and improving the ones we already have.” That’s a real part of our plan.”
“This was very important for Bollegraaf,” she said. “For the past few years, they had been doing research and development.” And that working with a company like ours would speed up the development of their products and technologies. For us, it would also speed up the business distribution and scale. At the end of the day, everyone won.
Druckman also makes it clear that the investment does not mean a change in the company’s plan or business model. Greyparrot will keep selling its AI-powered waste analytics to other MRF makers, but it will also be able to use Bollegraaf’s world reach to its own advantage. Among them are more than 400 MRFs and 3,100 recycling and sorting systems “designed and installed worldwide,” with a reach that goes from North America to Australia and all the way through Europe and Asia. The UK startup won’t be building any physical robotics or recycling/sorting equipment, though; it will keep its attention on AI.
A big part of the partnership is, of course, one: the business distribution and scale that they can offer because of the network they’ve built,” she said, summarizing what made the deal possible. “That is why they are adding our analyzers, AI, and digital capabilities to the retrofits and new builds that they are doing.”
“The second big thing is putting that data together with our APIs, Greyparrot Sync, into their control systems and different kinds of sorting systems. Again, this is a step toward fully automated, smart MRFs that we’re talking about.” But we’ll be putting out goods together that combine our data with that of the Analyzers and connect to their existing machines and systems.
The CEO of Bollegraaf Recycling Solutions, Edmund Tenfelde, said in a statement:
With 63 years of experience in the business, Bollegraaf is still the world leader in fully automatic, cutting-edge, turnkey recycling systems. The future is clear: if we want to recycle even more, everyone in the value chain needs to work together and learn more. We’ve been trying to find ways to use AI to make decisions that are based on facts and can be made automatically. This would give our clients a much better picture of their waste and help them get the most out of their investment. We are excited to make this strategic investment and work with Greyparrot to bring waste intelligence to both new and current recycling facilities around the world. We think that Bollegraaf’s deep understanding of automating recycling MRF processes, high-quality equipment, and unique engineering skills combined with Greyparrot AI systems create a unique combination that is sure to be successful.
Problems that need to be solved to change the system
What are the biggest problems that need to be fixed to make AI-powered trash processing works better right now? Druckman says that plastics are still hard to deal with because there are many types that can be found in trash. Each type has a different level of recyclability, so it’s important to be able to tell them apart as much as possible in order to get back as many of the valuable (i.e. recyclable) plastics as possible.
She told us, “This is still where work needs to be done.” “Mostly it’s about dealing with the changes [between types of plastics] and the plastics that are hard to recycle.” We’ll also be going into other areas where Bollegraaf and our other partners work, like electronic waste and construction and demolition waste, which are a little different. But the main idea is the same: it’s a challenge to figure out what the material is and separate it from the other material.
“One important thing I think I should bring up is that robotic arms have gotten a lot of attention in recent years as a way to separate people with AI. We’ve always seen that as one choice, which is why we built our technology and infrastructure so that our APIs can work with robotic arms and other types of separation systems as well. And that’s very important because there are many kinds of mechanical separation systems that can already separate things that need to be digitized and linked with AI, she said.
What you see here is the current infrastructure. We really think that we need to take advantage of the millions of dollars that have already been spent by improving it and making it possible to connect to that infrastructure instead of just looking at new hardware for very specific uses.
It’s also clear that recycling will never be a big enough solution to the problem of trash in the world. Druckman agrees that this needs a “system change” and a move away from ever more extractive consumption and toward a circular economy where goods are made to be reusable, sustainable, and long-lasting from the start. This would stop people from throwing things away in the first place. “Basically cutting down on plastic use is key to the solution,” she says. “Recovering and recycling won’t solve the whole problem; we need to do all of these things at the same time.”
But people are still a long way from being able to make that 180-degree turn. Getting rid of the trash we still make with better and more advanced waste management systems seems like an important short-term fix that will buy us time to make the bigger changes in how we make and use things. Because of this, Greyparrot says we’ll need a huge boost in garbage management infrastructure and AI-driven efficiency to handle the huge amount of trash that will be coming our way over the next few decades.
The startup says that only 1% of the trash that goes through management facilities is actually inspected. It also says that around 40% of trash sorting is still done by hand, even in “advanced” economies. This means that there is a huge chance to spread a waste management method that is friendly to automation and focused on efficiency, as long as countries can be persuaded of the need to do better.
Druckman says that the market is finally at a “turning point” in this area. This is because of some important rules in Europe that are driving change, such as plastic taxes that require packaging makers to use recycled plastics at least some of the time and EPR rules that require companies to deal with waste issues. She also talks about more rules that will help people recycle that will be passed in the next few years.
She said, “That shift is happening.” The people involved in the value chain are working together more and more, and they are also committing to building the infrastructure. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I think we can already see the beginnings of the policies, rules, and business incentives that will help turn things around.
Because AI can produce much more detailed data on what is being thrown away, how much, and where it ends up, brands now have what Druckman calls “post-consumption responsibility”: they need to think about what happens to their products after they’re used up. They can do this by choosing less packaging that is also easy to recycle or by giving money to help recycle and recover the materials used in their products. (Or, better yet, both.)
Using data-driven insights and AI to show what’s being thrown away and not salvaged is another smart thing that can be done. It can put pressure on producers to make less waste.
Unsurprisingly, Greyparrot is interested in package design in this area. A lot of other sustainability-focused startups are also becoming more interested in this as well.
The UK startup says that recycling pros, plant builders, packaging makers, and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands can use its analytics to help them make decisions that will help them recycle more efficiently, follow recycling rules, and make better recyclable packaging designs. One of our goals is to use the waste intelligence and information we have on where packaging is growing, along with our technology’s ability to recognize brands, to help with information, better recycling of those materials, and better design for packaging.
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