Two of the biggest global consumer brands, Unilever and Alibaba, have combined forces to create a recycling system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and sort plastic waste. They are attempting to combine Unilever’s packaging technology with Alibaba’s operating system to create a closed-loop plastic recycling system. 

How Does it Work?

The AI-powered plastic recycling machine system works by allowing users to scan the QR codes on their plastic bottles and then place them into the bin-like machine. The AI technology then analyses the item, and identifies which type of plastic it is. Each item is then fast-tracked to a different waste stream recycling centre to be treated.  The plastics are broken down into granules, which are then incorporated into new Unilever products to re-start the recycling loop.  So far, Unilever and Alibaba have distributed 20 machines across Shanghai and Hangzhou. Their plans for 2021 see the distribution of 500 more. Their estimation is that each machine will collect over 1 metric tonne of plastic throughout the year.
AI Recycling Machines
ai-powered recycling machine

Waste Free World Initiative

The Unilever and Alibaba partnership is represented in their initiative; Waste Free World. Unilever recently announced their commitment to halving the use of virgin plastic in their packaging by 2025, and Alibaba has promoted similar practices. These AI-powered machines are central to this process.  The initiative is also striving to change consumer habits, by using reward incentives for both companies. Each plastic item will provide Unilever coupons and green points on Alibaba’s AliPay.  Rohit Jawa, Unilever’s executive vice president hopes that this new AI-powered system will formulate “the 'green engine' of the circular economy for plastic packaging in China.” This new initiative is an exciting step in global conglomerates acknowledging their environmental impact and attempting to reduce pollution and tackle climate change.