Robots to scale alternative to plastic packaging

We're addicted to single-use plastics. Robots are helping to scale a viable alternative that uses ag waste.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Robots are getting in on the effort to curb our addiction to single-use plastics. A new partnership between one of the largest industrial robotics manufacturers and a compostable packaging company points the way to an efficient and cost-effective green packaging revolution.

ABB Robotics has signed an agreement to collaborate with California-based Zume, which makes the compostable packaging that's becoming more commonplace as an alternative to plastics. ABB's robotic cells will help Zume speed up and scale production of 100% compostable packaging made from plant-based agricultural material.

The stats on single-use plastic are grim. Currently, less than 10% of the 380 million tons of plastic produced globally every year is recycled. But the winds are slowly changing as global brands recognize the need for sustainability in the face of consumption and governmental pressure. Zume's packaging material uses the leftovers from agricultural production, including bamboo, wheat, and straw. Plant material uses significantly less water and energy and reduces CO₂ emissions when compared to the production and disposal of plastic packaging. The plant-based material is also 100% biodegradable and simply breaks down after use. 

"By 2050, we estimate that the world's oceans will have more plastic than fish, so it is critical that we move everyone away from single-use plastics," said Alex Garden, Chairman and CEO of Zume.

Zume's process revolves around molded fiber manufacturing cells that convert the raw material into molded packages. As demand increases, Zume has identified a growing need for the scale, and efficiency automation affords. Enter the robots

ABB will integrate and install more than 1,000 molded fiber manufacturing cells, including up to 2,000 robots at Zume customer's sites worldwide over the next five years. Each cell processes up to two tons of agriculture material every day, creating 80,000 pieces of sustainable packaging. At scale, each global site would be able to process 71,000 agricultural materials each year, accounting for up to two billion pieces of packaging.

"Using ABB's global automation experts to develop and integrate automation solutions for our customers will revolutionize packaging and demonstrate what sustainable manufacturing can look like," says Garden. "The flexibility and scalability of ABB's robots enable an efficient automated manufacturing process. This means we can offer a viable, cost-effective, compostable alternative to plastic and help manufacturers to become more environmentally friendly."

According to the companies, a pilot project has been installed at one of India's largest wood and agro-based paper manufacturers, creating a facility of 50 manufacturing cells that will process 100 tons of wheat straw daily, creating 100% compostable packaging for a range of industries. 

"Automating production of Zume's sustainable packaging with ABB robots makes this a viable and economical alternative to single-use plastics. With Zume, we have the potential to remove trillions of pieces of plastic from the global marketplace, preserving scarce resources and supporting a low carbon world," says Sami Atiya, President of ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation. "Today, robotic automation is expanding possibilities, making the world more sustainable through more efficient production that reduces energy use, emissions and production waste. Our collaboration showcases what is possible when organizations that are committed to pursuing a low-carbon society work together."

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