‘Operation National Sword’ – Introducing the Battle to Bring AI to Waste Management
COVID-19 and China
Waste management. Image Credit: Tom Fisk, Pexel.

China, previously the center of the global recycling trade, recently shut its doors to imports of recyclable material, underlining the fact that large amounts of the waste were ‘dirty’ or ‘hazardous’ – a threat to the environment.

The policy is called ‘National Sword’. Following the National Sword plan, China has banned the importation of certain types of solid waste, as well as set strict contamination limits on recyclable materials. This means that the country is not accepting shipments that are mixed with trash, the wrong type of recyclable, or low-quality recyclables like greasy paper goods.

It was announced in July 2017, and the ban officially began on January 1, 2018. In addition to the bans, China reduced the number of import licenses, meaning that fewer businesses are able to import waste.

At the same time, the country has implemented new strict policies to handle its domestic waste. The central government has many reasons to pay increasing attention to domestic waste management, including increasing pollution, emergency of climate change, rising social unrest due to pollution-related health diseases and rising domestic consumption. 

China recently clinched the title of the World’s largest consumer market – aided by each year’s record-setting Taobao- driven Singles’ Day  – and the country closely trails the US in total annual waste production. It is projected to produce nearly double the amount of waste as the US by 2030.

The government’s domestic policy requires 46 cities, including the biggest cities like Shanghai and Beijing, to carry out mandatory garbage sorting by the end of 2020. Under the plan, all public institutions and companies are required to separate hazardous waste, kitchen waste and recyclable materials.

It is worth noting that, prior to now, 12 cities adopted laws and regulations on garbage sorting, while 24 had introduced work programs related to the issue – according to Wang Menghui, minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

Moreover, Beijing’s Tongzhou district has implemented mandatory garbage sorting in public institutions and more than 2,500 restaurants. The restaurants are supposed to separate kitchen waste into a bin. Then the sanitation company will transfer the food scraps via specially designed kitchen waste trucks.

Meanwhile, Shanghai is experimenting with a new garbage classification system, shifting from the two traditional categories – recycling and other waste – to a more comprehensive four-tier classification system, which will sort out waste into: recyclable waste, hazardous waste, residual waste and kitchen waste.

In fact, the need for massive and coordinated waste management solutions is a relatively new phenomenon in China.

“We were a farming-based society,” said Chen Liwen, founder of Zero-Waste Villages, a non-profit focused on changing recycling habits in rural China. “We didn’t even have a basic waste management system.” Despite that the undeniable progress, he adds that “the challenge has been getting bigger and bigger since 2008.” (China began incentivizing domestic consumption as a reaction to the decreased global demand resulted from the 2008 global financial crisis.).

AI solutions upgrade waste management technology

Several high-tech firms have emerged in this waste sorting push, finding opportunities as they search for both profits and sustainable solutions. In addition to many facial recognition technologies, firms like the Shanghai-based Alpheus are deploying AI in the waste management sector.

“When you put rubbish into the smart bin, the camera takes a picture and sends it to the cloud,” said Joel Zhang, operations manager at Alpheus. “Then the platform compiles waste data samples, transmits the result… and AI sorts it automatically."

Zhang said that Alpheus’s products have yet to be rolled out on a mass scale and can still only process items one at a time. Nonetheless, he claims the technology is already 95% accurate. It will be deployed in new products, and the firm has plans to expand across the country alongside China’s greater recycling push, he said.

He further added that while it is in the early stages, his company is developing technology to handle wet, biodegradable materials; he described a hypothetical machine that would dry out wet rubbish and identify the base material, before reducing it to dust and sorting it.

Moreover, Tencent, which operates the ubiquitous messaging app WeChat, introduced a mini-program, Master of Trash Sorting, which instructs users how waste should be sorted and disposed of, based on keywords.

Alipay, the financial arm of Alibaba, announced that it had deployed its artificial intelligence and augmented reality technologies to generate a mini program for waste sorting. Users can scan waste items using cameras on their smartphones to learn which category the rubbish belongs to.

Alibaba’s e-commerce rival boasts that it provides AI-backed image recognition technologies so that businesses can sort their garbage. Users ask a smart speaker questions like ‘What kind of garbage is this?’ and ‘How do I recycle this item?’

The recycling trend has also caught the attention of Chinese games start-ups. A 15-second video of a trash-sorting virtual reality game, developed by tech start-up VitrellaCore, went viral on Chinese social media recently.

The game debuted at the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai last year, where long queues of visitors waited to try it, according to a report from state-run media Xinhua.

China’s waste policies helped AI companies in other countries as well. In the US, more start-ups are testing out new technology to make recycling sustainable. For instance, the US’s AMP Robotics is an artificial intelligence and robotics company that aims to change the way we recycle. AMP’s robots are able to learn the features of materials. They are able to determine whether a material is cloudy or opaque. AI robots may even be able to identify symbols of specific brands.

Founder of AMP Robotics, Matanya Horowitz, said that “the situation with the Chinese export markets has actually been good for the company.” Investors are also taking notice. In November 2019, AMP Robotics announced a USD 16 million Series A investment from Sequoia Capital.

Although the new AI technologies are helpful in waste management, experts warn that rethinking the way we deal with garbage is the essential part.

“Certainly, technology can be very helpful for China’s government and people to reduce the quantity of rubbish,” said Zhang. “But Chinese people also need to have more knowledge about how to sort the rubbish.”

For that matter, consumption – an integral component in waste management – doesn’t seem likely to slow in China anytime soon. Further growth in China’s economy depends on bolstering domestic consumption. Even though companies such as Alibaba have promoted sustainable consumer behavior and a green ‘Singles’ Day,’ China’s consumption – therefore, waste generation – is only growing.

In addition to awareness and education efforts, creating a formal, sustainable waste management system in China will likely require far more coordination, funding and improved administration efforts at municipal and federal levels, according to Chen Liwen, founder of Zero-Waste Villages, a non-profit focused on changing recycling habits in rural China.

All in all, improvements in AI technology might help China to sort its waste efficiently. However, to reduce domestic waste, the country needs to focus on new policies around increasing environmental awareness. Perhaps new human-focused policies might even create new markets for AI companies in education.

Editor: Luke Sheehan
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