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Unilever and Alibaba launch AI-powered closed-loop recycling system in 'Waste Free World' initiative

Person puts bottle into AI recycling machines

Customer inserts bottle into a newly installed AI recycling machines in China. Image via Unilever video.

Two of the globe's biggest consumer goods firms have come together to create recycling machines that use artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically identify and sort plastic packaging.

The Waste Free World initiative is the fruit of a recently announced partnership between Unilever and Chinese giant Alibaba, which they claim combines the former's packaging technology with the latter's business operating system to accelerate the process of returning high-grade plastic back into a closed-loop recycling system.

The system works by enabling customers to scan QR codes on plastic bottles before placing them into the newly designed machines. AI technology then identifies the type of plastic and sorts it accordingly, freeing it up to be fast-tracked for reuse at recycling centers, rather than degraded, the firms explained.

The bottle's recycled plastic granules can then be deployed in the packaging of future Unilever products, finding their way back into stores and re-starting the recycling loop.

Unilever is committed to halving the amount of virgin plastic it uses in its packaging by 2025, aiming to achieve an absolute reduction in its plastic use of 100,000 tons by the same date.

Twenty such machines are operational in offices and community spaces in Shanghai and Hangzhou, with 500 more set to be installed through 2021, helping collect over 500 metric tons of plastic, according to the companies.

The project also aims to drive changes in consumer behavior by using the incentives of Unilever coupons and AliPay rewards, with each bottle earning consumers Unilever coupons and "Ant Forest" green points on Alibaba's e-wallet service AliPay, which boasts more than 500 million users.

"Plastic has its place, but it should not cause environmental pollution," said Rohit Jawa, Unilever's executive vice president of North Asia. "We believe Waste Free World jointly launched with Alibaba Group will become the 'green engine' of the circular economy for plastic packaging in China."

Unilever is committed to halving the amount of virgin plastic it uses in its packaging by 2025, aiming to achieve an absolute reduction in its plastic use of 100,000 tons by the same date.

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