Zume inks deal with ABB to deploy 2,000 plastic-reducing robots

Plastics are bad, m’kay, and a lot of the world is pretty god-awful at reducing, re-using and recycling. Single-use plastics are among the worst environmental evils out there, and Zume is leaping to the rescue. The company is working to create a sustainable, viable and economic alternative to a lot of the plastics we currently use. This also marks an acceleration of Zume, finding product-market fit as one of the most remarkable startup pivots we’ve ever seen — Zume started its life as a company creating pizza-making robots, with some pretty impressive robotic pizza-making robot arms, before its co-founder Julia Collins left to make climate-friendly food, and the whole company eventually changed its focus.

It seems as if the company’s culture of climate focus didn’t leave with Collins, however — and Zume has been making a name for itself in plant-based alternatives to plastics since its acquisition of Pivot back in 2019. Now, the company is declaring all-out war on plastics with an aggressive scale-up operation and a brand new partnership with industry giant ABB.

“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, succinctly capturing both why they are solving a problem worth solving, and the urgency of the solution. The company recently inked a deal with ABB to provide an army of robots to help it fulfill its mission, although neither Zume nor ABB are eager to disclose the financial details of the deal.

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ABB will supply robotic cells that will enable Zume’s production of sustainable packaging on a global scale, helping to reduce reliance on single-use plastics. ABB will integrate and install more than 1,000 molded fiber manufacturing cells (MFC) — including up to 2,000 robots at Zume customer sites worldwide over the next five years.

“Automating production of Zume’s sustainable packaging with ABB robots makes this a viable and economic 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,” said 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.”

The robot is partially made of plastic, but teams up with Zume to reduce plastics. Excellent work, Judas. Photo: ABB

Not a moment too late — the UN Environment Program (UNEP) has identified single-use plastics as one of the most serious environmental issues we face today, with almost 60% of all plastics produced since the 1950s ending up in landfills or in nature. It doesn’t help that a lot of plastics aren’t nearly as recyclable as you’d think, as NPR’s Planet Money explored recently: it doesn’t make sense economically or environmentally to recycle plastic a lot of the time.

Shifting some of our use to compostable, bio-degradable materials makes a lot of sense. To that end, Zume and ABB installed a pilot project at Satia Industries, one of India’s largest wood and agro-based paper manufacturers, creating a facility of 10 manufacturing cells that will process 20 tons of wheat straw daily creating 100% compostable packaging for a range of industries. Unlike plastic, plant-based material is 100% biodegradable and simply breaks down after use.

“Our work with Zume and ABB enables Satia Industries to meet and exceed the expectations of our clients for high-performing, affordable and reliable products that are sustainably manufactured and easily composted,” said Dr. Ajay Satia, CMD Satia Industries. “Besides adding significant value to the company, we are able to support the planet by providing sustainable solutions to help our customers transition to more modern, reliable and customized products compared to those they use today.”