Introducing Glacier

Glacier
6 min readApr 19, 2022

Author: Rebecca Hu

Our planet is drowning in stuff. Think about what you’ve thrown out today already: your coffee cup, your plastic takeout container, the cardboard box your online order arrived in. Have you ever wondered where it all goes?

In the US, your recycling bin typically goes to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where legions of human workers pick out commodities — such as paper, plastic, and metals — that are turned into recycled feedstock.

Processing nearly 300 million tons of recycling every year is a herculean task. It’s no wonder that the system that figures it out is worth $116B annually in the US alone.

Recycling is not only hugely financially preferable to landfilling, but also has major environmental benefits: producing recycled commodities instead of new material massively reduces energy consumption, depletion of natural resources, and landfill volume.

However, the past few years have underscored the need to significantly revamp how we handle our waste:

  • Accelerating climate change: The UN estimates that our planet only has until 2030 to prevent runaway global warming, and we’re nowhere near close. In April 2022, the UN Secretary General released a statement warning, “We are on a fast track to climate disaster.” Transitioning to a circular economy can reduce 10B tons (20%) of GHG emissions. In other words, recycling represents a massive, low-hanging opportunity to use already-existing infrastructure in the fight against climate change.
  • Recycling legislation: California passed the US’s first minimum recycled content legislation in 2020, and many states have since followed suit. Our current recycling infrastructure is not collecting nearly enough recyclables to meet projected demand.
  • Public health crisis: We are just beginning to understand the health impact of plastic pollution and other materials not properly disposed of. For example, a 2019 study by the WWF found that people are ingesting up to a credit card’s worth of plastic each week via water pollution.
  • Massive demand for recycled feedstock, but limited supply: Today, there is much more demand for recycled feedstock than the industry can recover and supply. For example, there is an annual gap of 1B pounds between current US supply and projected 2025 demand for recycled PET, or a 55% increase over current production volume. This represents $340M in annual PET revenue that US MRFs are leaving on the table — and PET is less than 5% of the recycling stream.
  • Slow technological innovation: Industries like manufacturing and warehousing have overcome similar supply/demand shortfalls through automation. However, the recycling industry is just at the start of the digitization curve. Of the 50+ MRFs we’ve spoken to, most have Internet speeds slower than that of a typical US household. Fortunately, recent improvements in the fields of robotics and AI mean that for the first time in history, we can design automation that tackles the dull, dirty, and dangerous job of diverting recyclables from landfill.

While the pressure to recycle is mounting, our infrastructure is struggling to keep up. COVID-19 and the Great Resignation illuminate the fragility of a disposal system that still relies overwhelmingly on manual sortation. Many MRFs report chronic short-staffing, resulting in a huge volume of recyclables sent to landfill.

Recycling Automation to the Rescue

Three years ago, my cofounder Areeb and I were searching for a way to impact the climate crisis. We soon realized that developing automation for the recycling industry was a perfect overlap of our skills, climate impact, and market opportunity.

At the time, we knew that the market for recycling robots was both huge (nearly $40B) and nascent (<1% penetrated). A few recycling robotics companies had already gotten their start, but after interviewing dozens of MRFs, we learned that existing technology was far off the mark.

Notably, everyone we spoke to already knew about recycling robots and believed automation could provide more consistent sorting power. However, nearly all MRF operators told us that they were waiting for better ROI. At an 8- to 10-year payback period, many robots are much too expensive at current performance for most MRFs to justify the purchase. Indeed, the only facilities we spoke to that had installed robots were large, well-funded operations in dense urban areas. Across the board, MRF operators expressed their hope for more accessible automation.

Introducing Glacier

Glacier’s robot is a solution to MRF operators’ need for more accessible automation. It is the only robot custom-built for recycling sorting.

As a result, Glacier’s robot offers:

  • Lowest cost for equivalent performance: Glacier’s robot is less than half the cost to purchase relative to other MRF robots. We’ve done this by designing a robot that is custom-built for MRF sortation rather than relying on off-the-shelf, complex systems that can cost an arm and a leg.
  • Smallest footprint: Glacier’s robot takes up as little as 3 feet of conveyor length, the same amount of space as a person. Compare this to other robots that require 9–12 feet of conveyor length to do the same job. Most MRFs are highly space-constrained; the ability to add automation into every nook and cranny significantly increases the value that Glacier’s robots can provide to these facilities.
  • Easiest and cheapest install: Glacier’s robot is as little as 20% the cost to install relative to other MRF robots. Because our robot is compact and lightweight, we can carry all parts in by hand and install the system in one day. In contrast, MRFs have told us stories about needing 4–6 weeks of downtime to retrofit and install other robots, which equates to tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

By offering unparalleled advantages on cost, size, and ease of installation, Glacier’s robot democratizes access to automation for all MRFs.

We’re proud to have assembled a stellar team to build this critical technology, with team members hailing from companies like Google, Facebook, Bain, and BCG, and from institutions including Stanford, MIT, Yale, and UC Berkeley.

As a result of our team’s hard work, we’re excited to emerge from stealth today and announce that we are live with a large commercial partner. This deployment is a use case that illustrates the unique flexibility of our design: one Glacier robot sorts 8 commodity types across two sort lines, which no other robotic sorter can do.

Of course, robots are just the beginning for Glacier. We’re also developing best-in-class computer vision to identify everything in our waste stream, from broad categories like PET plastic, to highly specific items like cat food tins. We now have an extraordinary degree of insight into what exactly is in our trash. Our aim is to equip every participant in the recycling industry with this data intelligence. From MRFs making equipment-buying and staffing decisions, to manufacturers seeking additional sources of recycled feedstock, to municipalities educating their communities about better recycling practices, our material composition data will power never-before-seen efficiencies throughout the circular economy.

Glacier’s ultimate goal is to build a recycling system so robust that it’s impossible for an item with value to end up in the landfill or ocean. With a $4.5M seed round led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA), participation from experts and executives in sustainability, industry, and technology, and a strong pipeline of commercial deployments, we at Glacier are inspired daily to help the hardworking recycling industry build towards a world without waste.

Rebecca Hu, Founder — on behalf of Team Glacier

Part of Glacier’s intrepid team!

Looking to join Team Glacier? Check out our open roles.

Looking to try our technology? Reach out to us at partnerships@endwaste.io.

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Glacier

Building AI-powered robotics for recycling. Learn more at endwaste.io.