The next frontier

Features - Mixed C&D Processing

Robotic sorting equipment being demonstrated with positive results in Finland could be the wave of the future for mixed C&D recycling facilities.

July 14, 2014
CDR Staff

In Helsinki, Finland, a robot called ZRR (ZenRobotics Recycler) is enabling the recycling of construction and demolition (C&D) materials which, until now, was a difficult task for humans to perform. By banking on ZenRobotics Ltd., SITA Finland, a Suez Environnement subsidiary, based in Paris, that specializes in designing high-tech recycling robots, is betting on the green, smart and cooperative economy of the future.

Once upon a time, there was a robot that liked sorting waste. But not just any waste. It specifically liked sorting the type of waste that is difficult, or even dangerous, for humans to handle. This robot is known as the ZenRobotics Recycler and is the creation of a Finnish company that bears the same name, ZenRobotics Ltd.

The company, founded in 2007, and specializing in robotic recycling methods, was pleased with the arrival of ZRR, its very first creation. The company says the robot was intelligent, responsive, quick, thorough and indefatigable and able to extract raw materials from C&D debris.

Its viewing system and its artificial intelligence enable the robot to determine the nature of the material that passes in front of it on a moving belt, and to select the waste that has the greatest value from a recycling and recovery standpoint. Its pincers grab wooden, metal or stone items and steer them toward containers. ZenRobotics Ltd. says it found a great partner in SITA Finland.

Forming a partnership

This partnership between the two companies began in 2011, the year ZRR was born in Helsinki, Finland. It was the very place where the paths of ZRR creators and Suez Environnement crossed. While SITA is renowned for offering innovative solutions in the environmental field, the company says it is at least as famous for its propensity to form partnerships.

When SITA made a commitment to ZenRobotics, the primary goal consisted of testing ZRR’s capabilities on-site. Following successful tests, both parties officially announced the acquisition of two robots by SITA: a ZRR Heavy Picker and a ZRR Fast Picker in addition to the trial robot already on-site. The effectiveness of these robots, which are capable of extracting raw materials from C&D rubble in a safe way, was unprecedented, according to SITA. One year later, in September 2013, both parties signed a framework agreement to roll out ZRR systems worldwide.

When the partnership was sealed, Juho Malmberg, CEO of ZenRobotics, said, “This is a great day in ZenRobotics’ history. Suez Environnement, a global leader in waste management and recovery, has understood the benefits of our robotic recycling technology. Thanks to this worldwide framework agreement, both companies are now in pole position where new recycling technologies are concerned.”

The agreement aims to streamline the ZRR system ordering process for Suez Environnement’s subsidiaries, the company says.

Prime position

If new analysis from London-based research firm Frost & Sullivan is any indication of the growth expected in the C&D recycling industry in Europe, then Helsinki, Finland-based ZenRobotics will be in a prime position to capitalize on it.

The report, titled “European Construction and Demolition Recycling Services Market,” finds that the C&D recycling market earned revenues of $18.75 billion in 2013 and expects this to reach $23.85 billion by 2020.

An estimated 25.9 percent increase in the volume of waste until 2020 is intensifying the demand for limiting landfilling. Environmental and land availability concerns apart, the report notes that rising landfill prices are brightening the prospects of market participants that provide sustainable and economically sound solutions for C&D waste management.

The growing volume of C&D debris has become a significant concern in Europe, according to the report. The C&D market in the region is governed by regulations regarding waste reduction, recycling and diversion of waste material resources away from landfilling. Therefore, the need to recycle C&D debris has prompted waste management companies to optimize collection systems and increase recycling volumes, the report surmises.

“Market development is strongly driven by the Waste Directive (2008/98/EC), wherein C&D waste must achieve a recycling target of 70 percent by 2020,” says Frost & Sullivan Energy & Environmental Research Analyst Monika Chrusciak. “Market revenues will also get a leg up from the future optimization of collection and recycling technologies.”

However, local legislation is not uniformly transposed despite strong European Union support for C&D recycling. Participants often are challenged by the misleading waste categorization and high recycling level indications. Dissimilar local interpretations lead to high variations in regional market development, which ultimately affect market dynamics and profitability.

Furthermore, the report notes C&D debris can be difficult and expensive to sort, collect and transport, as the material is highly heterogeneous and voluminous. These issues highlight the need for an integrated smart management solution that facilitates material recovery and related business economics, and may provide just the market for ZenRobotics Recycler (ZRR) waste sorting system to thrive.

“The current lack of smart management solutions is affecting the recycled materials’ quality,” notes Chrusciak. “Hence, data regarding the quality and quantity of C&D waste material is crucial for long-term collaborations with final recycling companies.”

The analysis predicts Europe is expected to experience increased infrastructure development. The region is emerging from a downturn and building companies will be looking to optimize costs and use recycled aggregate as an alternative to costly primary material. These trends, along with greater green building development, bode well for the recycling services market, Frost & Sullivan states.

“The market is anticipated to continue growing as individual European governments, especially in Western Europe, are creating legal frameworks and encouraging the development of C&D recycling services,” observes Chrusciak. “Higher investments in these services will aid the optimal processing of recyclable waste and improve safety work standards as well.”

More information from the Frost & Sullivan report is available at


A new revolution

The transaction turned the Helsinki facility into the most robotic C&D recycling facility in the word, according to SITA. ZRR sorts waste so thoroughly that the amount going to landfill or to incinerators is decreasing. In fact, thanks to ZRR, 12,000 metric tons of raw materials are retrieved every year.

The ZRR system specifically enables a facility’s yield ratio to increase from 70 to 90 percent, according to SITA. The ultimate goal is to exceed 95 percent recovery. Another strong point is the fact that ZRR can lift items that weigh up to 22 pounds (10 kilograms), while its capacity, which is calculated based on a cycle of 3 to 4 seconds and an item weight of between 4.4 to 17.6 pounds (2 to 8 kilograms), is around 10 metric tons per hour. If the plant allowed the robot to work for around 6,000 hours, the minimum capacity would be 12,000 metric tons per year and the maximum capacity 60,000 metric tons per year.

Christophe Cros, deputy chief executive officer of Suez Environnement in charge of the waste activities in Europe, explains the nature and the effects of a win-win partnership. “As a pioneer in the incorporation of innovative recycling technologies, Suez Environnement has supported ZenRobotics’ R&D since the beginning as a pilot customer,” he says. “We are now moving to a new stage involving the implementation of the ZenRobotics Recycler technology on an industrial scale.

“The construction and demolition waste recovery sector is booming, and is expanding at a rapid pace,” adds Cros. “The ZRR will enable an improvement in the sorting ratio.”

The implementation of this automatic sorting system provided an opportunity for Suez Environnement and ZenRobotics to test a new business model based on cooperation. ZRR is the prototype for these androids, which are described everywhere as the “next major industrial revolution,” Cros continues.

If, as Bruno Bonnell, the digital world and robotics specialist, says, “the intelligence provided to objects will result in the same technological and societal breakthrough as electricity or the Internet,” then we are entitled to see preliminary signs of that breakthrough in ZRR opening for business. Cooperation, intelligence and the green economy are the cornerstones of the new industrial revolution, which are gradually falling into place. The distributed capitalism suggested by economist Jeremy Rifkin is now within our reach.


The article was submitted by Paris-based Suez Environnement,