Amazon Pumps Cash Into AI-Powered Recycling Startup

March 11th, 2024
4:25 PM

Amazon announced earlier this week it has taken another step toward becoming a mean, green e-commerce machine.


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March 8, 2024 at 12:30 PM GMT

The company’s Climate Pledge Fund has invested in Glacier, a technology startup using artificial intelligence and robotics for recycling solutions. Amazon said it has begun pilot testing alongside the San Francisco-based company.

The amount of investment Amazon put forth has not been disclosed, but the Prime purveyor co-led the funding round that culminated in $7.7 million in total investment for the green gurus. Other investors included NEA, AlleyCorp, Overture Climate VC and VSC Ventures.


Amazon's Cash Involvement

The cash put up by Amazon came from a piece of its Climate Pledge Fund called the Female Founder Initiative (FFI).

Phoebe Wang, an investment partner at the Climate Pledge Fund, said Amazon has a long way to go to properly support women-owned businesses.

“We’ve made significant progress, but women still face hidden barriers and an invisible glass ceiling, especially in the startup and venture capital space,” said Wang in a statement on Amazon’s blog. “We must invest in women like [Hu] who are pioneering innovative technology to address the climate crisis. Our goal is to promote greater support for these female tech founders and help them succeed.”

Though the former has been in existence since 2020, the company developed the latter in 2022 to help close the gap in funding for female-identifying technology founders. According to Amazon, Glacier, which boasts the talent of CEO and co-founder Rebecca Hu, has become the second startup to receive funding from the FFI.


How the Technology Works

The technology behind Glacier, which has an existing partnership with Colgate-Palmolive, uses a camera equipped with proprietary AI to identify over 30 categories of recyclable metal, cardboard and plastic materials—like, for instance, Amazon’s signature plastic Prime envelope.

That AI system then alerts a robot to its findings, which helps the robot sorts through the debris in real time. The process works to salvage all materials that have recyclable value so they get intercepted before hitting a landfill.

Areeb Malik, Glacier’s chief technology officer and co-founder, said the technology compares with existing AI systems that consumers might encounter in their day-to-day lives.

“I think the most easy analogy is a self-driving car. It’s out on the street, it sees people and stop signs and dogs. We do the same thing, except we’re identifying aluminum cans and cardboard and plastic bottles,” Malik told Sourcing Journal.

Glacier sells its proprietary AI system and robots into materials recovery facilities (MRFs) around the country; it currently has partnerships with about 12 MRFs in the U.S.

Those facilities have two primary use cases for the technology, Malik said.

“Depending on what the facility needs, the two common use cases are we will pick the good stuff out of the bad—so that’s picking recyclables out of a stream that’s heading for landfill—or we will pick the bad stuff out of the good—you can imagine a stream of just paper, for instance, and we are picking out [the materials] that are not paper,” he explained.

According to the company, one of its robots has the capability to prevent over 10 million items annually from unnecessarily seeing a landfill as their final destination.

Malik said the team trained its models by collecting a large quantity of images from MRFs, extracting information from those images via labeling, whether assisted manually or by AI, and collecting data. The AI model learns in real time, which means it becomes stronger just by fulfilling its main tasks.

Glacier has aspirations for its AI system to aid other recycling facilities and brands throughout the country, which Malik said would only continue to buttress the budding model.


Recycling Resolutions

The technology, in the immediate future, aims to use the higher-quality recycled content to pass an increased stream of post-consumer material along to innovators using it for new packaging.

In the future, though, Amazon hopes the startup can equip facilities with the ability to recycle other types of packaging that cannot be recycled today. The pilot tests will focus on sortation processes for novel biomaterials, in line with Amazon’s strategy to shift its plastic packaging to bio-based, biodegradable or compostable packaging.

Malik declined to dive into specifics, but noted that the startup would work to analyze the potential for materials like these for future use.

“We’re trying to help them understand the traceability the recoverability of those materials so that they can further investments,” Malik said.

Nick Ellis, principal of Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, said the newly announced partnership will be a continuation of the company’s interest in more sustainable packaging solutions.

“Amazon is always looking at new ways to innovate on behalf of our customers, and plastic packaging is no exception,” Ellis said in a statement. “In order to build a future where new materials can be recycled at scale, we must test options to move these materials through the recycling system. Partnering with Glacier will enable us to test the role of novel AI and robotics-based recycling technologies so that we can identify and aggregate novel packaging materials that can ultimately be recycled and repurposed.”