The Dragon Puts AI at the Service of the Waste Recycling Industry


Recently, AI-powered waste bins have been disseminated all around China. As the world hits the point of no return for garbage volume, the Dragon aims at building zero-waste communities with the help of AI and advanced technologies


For many years now China has placed itself on the frontline in the fight against climate change promoting a sustainable way of development. And while many new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) have already been introduced in Chinese daily lives, it is now time for the PRC to put AI at the service of recycling and sustainability.

More than 10,000 AI-powered waste bins have actually been disseminated around 33 Chinese cities gaining over 2.6 million users on the related app in less than a year from the installation. These intelligent bins have been launched by Xiaohuanggou, a Chinese company engaged in environmental protection, which perfectly fits in the governmental project to build zero-waste cities with the help of new technologies.

The Dragon has come to the point where the quest for a sustainable green future is crucial in order to build the long-awaited successful modern superpower China aims to be. Therefore, since the former President Hu Jintao promoted the development of the Ecological Civilization in 2007, Beijing supported sustainable practices encouraging a green development.

Xi Jinping himself often addresses this issue in his speeches promoting a “green, low-carbon and circular development” while punishing the activities that damage the environment. In short, the Dragon’s goal is “to build an ecological civilization that will benefit generations to come,” as said by the President during the National Congress of the Communist Party in 2017.


Aiming at building a sustainable environment, in January 2018, China announced it would no longer import plastic waste from the US and EU. This was notable since China has been the world’s dumping ground receiving 25% of global plastic and paper scrap for over 25 years.


Moreover, in 2017, Chinese investment in renewables was up 58% from the previous year while those in the US dropped by 6% and in the EU by 36%. Due to the massive amount of investments allocated in the sector, the country became the leader for renewable energy in 2017, accounting for almost 50% of the global total.

The People’s Republic managed to reach these sustainable results within the Made in China 2025 plan, which also includes the “Internet Plus” initiative that will serve to integrate internet with the delivery of industrial and economic upgrading.

With over 800 million netizens, internet together with all the related wireless technologies are the key drivers for further development of many sectors the Made in China 2025 plans to implement. Therefore, it is not only significant for the seek of the hi-tech supremacy but it is crucial for sustainable development as well.

To reach the goal of building zero-waste cities, recently, the State Council issued a plan, which promoted the “Internet Plus recycling model” for the appliance of advanced technologies to garbage sorting.

Xiaohuanggou’s garbage bins represent the perfect example of how the “Internet Plus recycling model” works, putting into practice AI at the service of garbage sorting and thus recycling.


AI in the Waste Recycling Industry - xiaohuanggou - cifnews

© The first batch of XHG smart recycling machines has already been placed in Dongguan, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Beijing, and Shenzhen.


Xiaohuanggou 小黄狗 (XHG) – literally “Little Yellow Dog” – is an online recycling firm founded by Tang Jun and the Zhongzhi Enterprise Group in 2017. Its mission is to set up recycling stations at residential communities, office buildings, hotels, and downtown districts while paying people who recycle waste such as paper, plastic, metal, cloth, and glass.

With XHG’s app and WeChat mini-program, users can locate the nearby recycling stations, which host an interface where users select the type of material they are throwing away. Then, thanks to the use of AI, the machine is able to sort and classify the recyclable material, and then credit users with cash for their deposits through the downloadable app.

Finally, a team of garbage collectors brings the recyclables to the appropriate factories, which will proceed with the recycling. Thanks to the use of big data, cloud computing, and accurate location, users can also trace their waste during their way to recycling.


“We will continue recycling through the ‘Internet Plus’ model and draw more people to join us to contribute to China’s waste management,” said the founder of Xiaohuanggou.


However, XHG’s project is wide and aims to educate residents rather than just reward them. Therefore, the company plans to build a personal credit rating system and also chains for garbage classification while placing 1 million recycling stations across the country in the next three years.

Nevertheless, many other major companies now started to feel the need to embrace the mission of contributing to sustainable growth within the “Internet Plus” model. Moreover, several Chinese startups are working via WeChat to creating more value from recyclables, on disrupting the consumer recycling space. Among these, China’s mobile payment giant, Alipay introduced platforms for garbage sorting in 14 Chinese cities.

For what concerns the electronic waste instead, the internet company Baidu worked together with the United Nations Development Programme to launch a smartphone app called Baidu Recycle 百度回收站. The app provides e-waste pick-up services helping users in the recycling process. Today, almost 6,000 people use the app monthly.


AI in the Waste Recycling Industry - Baidu recycle - UNDP - cifnews

© UNDP. Providing e-waste disposals services, Baidu Recycle has been recognized as one of the “Global Solutions” by the United Nations.


Even foreign brands decided to follow the smart recycling trend in the Middle Kingdom. Last October, the US multinational Coca-Cola Company launched a vending-recycling machine in China, which uses AI technology such as facial recognition and sound interaction to encourage the return of the empty bottle and thus combining beverage sales and packaging recycling.

AI represents the core of the Industry 4.0 transformation, therefore, it also stimulates the waste management industry. Plus, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) together can optimize products for their specific use and drive resource and energy efficiency.


The transformation into a smart recycling economy will start with AI and IoT used to optimize current processes through a network made of people, vehicles, bins, and waste data; eventually redefining the whole recycling industry.


While big data provide knowledge of the waste stream allowing the creation of fast and sustainable resolutions to disposal problems, the recycling process is now conducted by robotic machines, which provide more efficiency and rapidity. Finally, IoT helps in managing households maintenance prolonging objects’ life cycles and thus reducing waste.

Another important technology that could have significant consequences for the waste management market is augmented reality, which will change the way waste reduction and management will be conducted in the future by helping any manufacturer make informed decisions to prevent waste in the first place.

However, the transformation can not work with just advanced technology. Li Guoqing, director of the urban and environmental studies department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, highlighted the need of society to raise public awareness for environmental protection instead of just focusing on personal income from recycling.


AI in the Waste Recycling Industry - smartphone - cifnews

© Unsplash. Thanks to the use of advanced technologies like AI and IoT, China made it possible to contribute easily to recycling via mobile apps for waste sorting and disposal.


Statistics show that China produces about 10 billion tons of solid waste every year. Therefore, it requires the participation of every Chinese citizen to win the battle against pollution and climate change.

Many Chinese major cities have already developed facilities for sorting, collecting, transporting and treating trash and they have also issued local regulations related to domestic trash classification. The Dragon’s goal is to recycle at least 35% of urban household waste by 2020 and AI will represent a key technology to reach those results.


Waste management powered by artificial intelligence is spreading in China while the country implements its green economy and residents realize the importance of garbage sorting and recycling through smart disposal bins and smartphone apps.


In addition, China’s ban on foreign garbage has drastically changed the global concept of recycling itself unraveling the problem of producing waste that needs to be processed. Both exporting countries and the PRC have been forced to reimagine the process of waste disposal within their own borders creating a promising environment for the development of zero-waste projects.

Compared to other countries, the Middle Kingdom will be the world’s largest trash generator by 2030 but at the same time, it is also the leading force in the global digital economy. Therefore, these two factors are what makes China the perfect place where to develop innovative digital solutions for waste management.


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