A new joint initiative established by Unilever and Alibaba Group makes use of state-of-the-art AI technology and reverse vending machines to make bottle recycling easier than ever.
Called Waste-Free World, the effort is part of Unilever’s drive to tackle the root cause of plastic waste and change attitudes towards plastic packaging. At the same time, it offers an active response to the Shanghai government’s plan to create a plastic packaging management system that can be used country-wide to promote a more circular economy.
The launch of Waste-Free World saw 20 recycling machines installed as part of a pilot program in offices and community spaces in two of China’s largest cities, Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Each machine is equipped with sophisticated AI technology which automatically identifies different kinds of plastic bottle. All that customers need to do is to use Alipay — Alibaba’s e-wallet service — to scan the QR code displayed on the screen of the machine and then deposit the bottle into the recycling bin.
The bottles are sorted, stored and then collected and returned to recycling centers. Due to the pre-sorting by the machines, the quality of the recycled material is improved, enhancing the projects effectiveness.
The system is proving to be a win–win for consumers looking to make more sustainable lifestyle choices and for businesses looking to reuse plastic packaging. For businesses, the initiative offers an uncomplicated way to contribute to creating a circular economy for plastic waste.
Consumers, on the other hand, earn Unilever coupons and green energy points on the Alipay "Ant Forest" for each bottle they deposit in the Waste-Free World machines. The Alipay Ant Forest project rewards users with green energy points each time they take a step to reduce their emissions, such as by biking to work, going paperless and buying sustainable products.
These green energy points grow into a virtual tree on the user’s app, which Alipay matches by planting a real tree or protecting a conservation area. Since the project was launched in 2016, it has helped plant more than 200 million trees in partnership with NGOs in arid areas of China.
“Alibaba is supporting Unilever to make it easier for Chinese consumers to embrace responsible consumption across our multiple cross-platforms, including Alipay, Tmall, Ele.me and Tmall Supermarket by creating a closed-loop scenario for plastic recycling that starts with its purchase, to usage to recycle and repurchase,” said Vice President of the Alibaba Group, Jet Jing.
The initiative will aid Unilever in reaching its stated goals of halving its use of virgin plastic, cutting plastic packaging by more than 100,000 metric tons and accelerating its use of recycled plastic by 2025.
“We believe Waste-Free World, jointly launched with Alibaba Group, will become the "green engine" of the circular economy for plastic packaging in China,” declared Rohit Jawa, Unilever’s Executive Vice President of North Asia.