In the world’s most populous country, to say that the issue of waste sorting is important is an understatement. Statistics show that China produces nearly 10 billion tons of solid waste each year. In addition to growing pollution, failure to process this waste creates an estimated loss of resources of nearly 30 billion RMB, which is more than 4 billion USD. Elsewhere, an increase in the amount of medical waste and poor management of discarded protective masks have been observed during the coronavirus epidemic.
In January 2019, the government introduced drastic and ambitious measures to win the battle of recycling. China’s State Council published a “zero waste” plan, with the objective of achieving 35% recycled waste by 2020 and a ban on plastic bags between now and 2022. This plan promotes the “Internet Plus recycling model”, which integrates new technologies in waste sorting. With 23 million residents, Shanghai was the first city to experiment with the new regulation, which includes the use of officers posted at each sorting zone, as well as significant fines in the event of incorrect waste classification, for both citizens and companies.
Technologies and gamification to educate about sorting
There is a growing number of mini-programmes and fun solutions aimed at educating citizens about environmental challenges. They encourage users to carry out actions in order to win points and rewards.
VitrellaCore: getting waste sorted with virtual reality
In 2019, in Shanghai, free-to-access virtual reality video game machines were placed in public spaces in order to simulate sorting experiences. Wearing a virtual reality headset, users are presented with four rubbish recycling bins and can win points by discarding the waste that appears in the correct bin. The game, which is still available in streaming, was met with viral success when the government announced the new regulations. Users see this game, which was designed by the company VitrellaCore, as an educational tool to reduce time spent on this task.
Education through waste sorting mini-apps
In 2020, 280 applications related to the issue of sorting were available on WeChat, compared with 130 on Apple Store. The majority of them represent the most common types of waste, which users must discard in the appropriate bin in order to reach the next level, avoid losing lives, and so on.
Recycling innovations from tech giant Alibaba
Focus on Ant Forest
Since 2016, the mini-app Ant Forest, created by tech giant Alibaba, has encouraged millions of users to reduce their carbon footprint through playing, by analysing their environmental actions via Alipay (Alibaba’s online payment application). Each time they spend money in a positive way for the environment, they help make virtual trees grow. For example, by choosing the “without lid” option when ordering a meal delivery through the application Ele.me (China’s answer to Deliveroo), the player wins points. Once integrated in the game Ant Forest, partner applications observed much greater participation (multiplied by 5 to 7). Alibaba has promised to replant each virtual tree in order to regreen China’s most arid regions.
Reflecting the success of this mini-app, in 2019, Alipay counted 500 million users, with 122 million trees planted in total so far, and 7.9 million tons of CO2 avoided. The application also received the United Nations award “Champions of the Earth”.
The recycling option of the application Taobao
Through the e-commerce application Taobao, Alibaba has developed ￼a waste recognition system based on artificial intelligence. Users can take a photo of waste with the application, which shows them the corresponding bin.
In total, Alipay offers more than 70 mini-programmes related to waste recycling and even makes it possible to resell recyclable waste online via the e-commerce giant’s platform.
Alibaba recycling stations
Users of Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms can win points that earn discounts on future orders, by recycling their packaging at one of the 75,000 stations that have been set up by the group and its partners. Consumers scan a QR code that is then transformed into “green points”.
Bins fitted with technology
Facial recognition to win discount vouchers
In order to open bins, each Chinese citizen has a specific code and, in certain communities, bins open using facial recognition. This makes it possible to monitor users and encourage them to recycle by offering purchase vouchers and promotional offers on consumer products.
In the district of Xicheng in Beijing, 2100 residents have signed up to the programme.
Smart bins that sort waste
The startup Xiao Huang Gou (‘little yellow dog’ in Mandarin) has developed bins that are able to sort waste using artificial intelligence.
Users must log in to the application and scan a QR code to open the bin. The discarded waste is then identified by visual recognition, weighed and sorted. The market value of the recycled waste is evaluated in real time and paid into the user’s WeChat wallet. Waste is then delivered to various specialist recycling organisations by the startup’s refuse collectors, who receive an alert from a surveillance system when a bin is 80% full. In the space of a year, the 10,000 smart bins placed in 33 Chinese cities have collected nearly 4000 tons of waste supplied by 2.6 million users.
The impact of the coronavirus crisis on medical waste recycling
With the current Covid-19 epidemic, China is facing a new challenge in the area of waste management. While initiatives introduced have reduced waste and speeded up sorting, there is an issue regarding disposable medical equipment. With a total of 1.3 billion inhabitants in China and a mask worn each week, more than 10 billion masks have been discarded in recent months.
While the epidemic has reduced the country’s carbon footprint due to the stoppage of activities, the immediate challenge faced now is to deal with this medical waste and plan for cases of pollution due to masks that may still be contaminated, as on the beaches of Hong Kong, where more than one hundred masks were found at the beginning of March. Once again, technology has a role to play here: smart bins specially designed to retrieve masks have already been introduced in a district of Shenzhen. Residents can avoid all contact with the bin thanks to a QR code and facial recognition technology. In addition, the bin indicates the temperature of the person who discarded the mask. The company that created this technology has received an order from Wuhan and is stepping up production to satisfy the city’s demand.