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Published January 22, 2021
Published January 22, 2021

Two of the world’s biggest consumer goods companies have teamed up to launch China’s first large-scale closed-loop plastic recycling system. The aim of the joint initiative between Unilever and the Alibaba Group is to speed high-grade plastic back into the circular economy and move China’s companies and consumers towards a waste-free world.

“Plastic has its place, but it should not cause environmental pollution,” acknowledges Rohit Jawa, Unilever’s Executive Vice President of North Asia. “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.”

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. Consumers simply have to use Alibaba’s e-wallet service Alipay to scan the QR code displayed on the screen of the machine and then deposit the bottle into the recycling bin. The machine uses AI technology that automatically identifies the plastic the bottle is made of, sorts it, and stores it, so that it can be collected and returned to recycling centers and fast-tracked for reuse.

Consumers are rewarded with Unilever coupons and green energy points on the Alipay “Ant Forest” for each bottle they deposit in the Waste-Free World machines. Green energy points are also awarded to consumers for low-carbon activities. They collect them and then can be used to plant trees or land conservation. Since the launch of Alipay Ant Forest’s in 2016, it has helped plant more than 200 million trees in partnership with NGOs in arid areas of China.

“We believe Waste-Free World, jointly launched with Alibaba Group, will become the ‘green engine’ of the circular economy for plastic packaging in China,” Jawa says.

For businesses, Waste-Free World’s AI-enabled recycling equipment, logistics, and plastic processing make it possible to create a circular economy for plastic waste.

“Alibaba is supporting Unilever to make it easier for Chinese consumers to embrace responsible consumption across our multiple cross-platforms, including Alipay, Tmall, and Tmall Supermarket by creating a closed-loop scenario for plastic recycling that starts with its purchase, to usage to recycle and repurchase,” says Jet Jing, Vice President of the Alibaba Group.

Waste-Free World’s ability to pre-sort plastic packaging into its various grades “enhances the quality of recycled plastic bottles and means the reuse of plastic materials will be more effective and could better contribute to a circular economy,” adds Unilever North Asia’s Supply Chain Vice President Jennifer Han.


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