Unilever is teaming up with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to bring AI-driven recycling machines, which sort and separate plastic packaging waste, to stores across China. The partnership will incentivize consumers to use the machines through a coupon reward system.
The collaboration marks the beginning of a new campaign dubbed “Waste Free World,” constituting a continental effort to reduce plastic usage.
During 2021, 500 of the new deposit machines will be installed in market places, mainly in the Shanghai and Hangzhou area.
In doing so, AI will help collect over 500 tons of plastic annually, making a significant contribution to promoting a circular economy, says Unilever.
“Waste Free World” in Asia
Unilever claims the initiative is the first of its kind, allowing for “bottle to bottle” recycling. This skips the degradation process since it is sorted upon collection and can be directly reused at recycling centers.
“We believe our campaign ‘Waste Free World’ will become the ‘green engine’ of the circular economy for plastic packaging in China,” says Rohit Jawa, Unilever’s executive vice president of North Asia.
Jawa emphasizes industry in Asia has a substantial role to play in driving the corporation’s global environmental sustainability commitments.
“Plastic has its place, but it should not cause environmental pollution. By 2025, we will make an absolute reduction of 100,000 tons in plastic use and promote the use of recyclable plastic, so that we can halve the amount of virgin plastic we use in packaging and help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell.”
AI recycling tech
The machines, a product of Unilever’s packaging technology and Alibaba’s Business Operating System, operate as part of a step-by-step process.
Customers scan QR codes on the plastic bottles they need to recycle and AI technology then recognizes the bottle type and sorts it accordingly.
The assortments of waste are then fast-tracked to recycling centers. The bottles’ recycled plastic granules are then applied to future Unilever products’ packaging before going back on store shelves.
There are currently 20 of these recycling machines installed in offices and community spaces in Shanghai and Hangzhou.
A Unilever spokesperson says the duo are not releasing financial details on the project at this time.
Return incentives via AliPay
The return scheme is being driven by an incentive program using China’s AliPay e-wallet system, a payment platform used by over 500 million people throughout the country.
For each bottle returned to the machines, consumers earn Unilever coupons and ‘Ant Forest’ green points – an ongoing Chinese project to drive green energy by rewarding sustainable behaviors.
Unilever says it hopes the incentive scheme will train better practices into consumers beyond the project, leading to wider and long-lasting changes.
The FMCG giant adds it has no current plans to launch the machines outside of China.
Unilever faces NGO fire
The collaboration has arrived shortly after Unilever was last year branded one of the world’s worst plastic polluters by nonprofit organization Break Free from Plastic (BFFP).
For the second year in a row, BFFP found Unilever to be in the top five most culpable corporations on earth and accused it of using recycling and marketing schemes to “greenwash” the true extent and nature of the plastic waste problem.
Last year, a Tearfund report highlighted how the company is one of four global brands collectively producing enough plastic pollution to cover a football pitch to a depth of 10 cm every 20 minutes.
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