Unilever X Alibaba: Duo Debuts Closed Loop Recycling System In China To Tackle Plastic Waste

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Unilever has joined forces with Alibaba Group to develop an AI-powered recycling system that will identify and sort plastic packaging in an effort to make China a waste-free country.

British-Dutch multinational consumer goods giant Unilever partnered with Chinese multinational tech company Alibaba Group to launch the ‘Waste Free World’ Initiative, a first of its kind technology-driven closed-loop plastic recycling system in China.

As part of the collaboration, Unilever will combine its packaging technology with Alibaba’s business operating system in an attempt to drive change in consumers’ recycling behavior.

Through AI-powered recycling machines installed all over the country, consumers will be able to scan the QR code on the screen using Alipay, Alibaba’s e-wallet service, which will open the door to a chute where customers can deposit their plastic waste. The system will then automatically recognise the type of plastic and sort it with the help of a transmission device. Once sorted, the plastic waste will be transported to the recycling processing center where it will be turned into plastic granules that will be reused in Unilever’s product packaging.

In a press release seen by Green Queen, Unilever’s Executive Vice President of North Asia, Rohit Jawa said that while plastic has its place, 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.”

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

Rohit Jawa, Executive Vice President of North Asia, Unilever

Vice President of the Alibaba Group, Jet Jing added that they hoped the initiative would help to highlight the importance of recycling waste. “We want 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.”

The initiative is also an active response to the Shanghai government’s plan to develop a plastic packaging management system that can be used all over China to drive high-grade plastic back into the circular economy and push companies and consumers towards a waste-free world.

As part of a pilot programme, the launch saw 20 recycling machines installed in offices and community spaces in two of China’s largest cities, Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Unilever North Asia’s Supply Chain Vice President, Jennifer Han, concluded: “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.”

Once customers deposit the plastic and it is identified by the machine, customers can either receive Unilever coupons or green energy points which are awarded for low carbon activities on the Alipay ‘Ant Forest’ and can be used for planting trees or protecting conservation land. Since Alipay Ant Forest’s launch in 2016, it has been instrumental in getting more than 200 million trees planted in partnership with NGOs in arid areas of China.

Apart from this, China has also banned single-use plastic straws and shopping bags in major cities in an effort to reduce the increasing plastic waste in the country. The plan involves paper straws or poly-lactic acid straws replacing plastic ones, along with supermarkets offering customers the option to opt for recyclable bags at a price.

Recently, Mumbai-based Hindustan Unilever, the leading Indian FMCG company that is a subsidiary of Unilever, announced its own plans to achieve 100% plastic waste collection in 2021, meaning it will collect and process more plastic packaging waste than the company’s own plastic usage.

These initiatives are a part of Unilever’s commitment to halve its use of virgin plastic which is key if we want to reduce the plastic pollution crisis, which will leave behind 710 million tonnes of plastic waste even if we curb use by 80%

Back in November of 2020, Unilever began a major refill trial in supermarket chain Asda’s Middleton store in the British city of Leeds in an effort to reduce plastic waste. The company also announced that it will eliminate all fossil fuels in its cleaning products by 2030 and will establish a US$1.1 billion climate fund.


Lead image – Alibaba Group’s VP Jet Jing (left) and Unilever’s North Asia EVP Rohit Jawa (right) are jointly leading the closed-loop recycling initiative, courtesy of Ti Gong.


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