China’s ban on foreign waste created ripple effects in global recycling markets in 2018. US and UK markets were unable to meet domestic recycling demands, and Southeast Asian countries were overwhelmed with sharp increases in waste imports diverted from China.
But how does China deal with its own waste? It's already the world’s largest trash generator. By 2030, its volume of waste is projected to be double America's volume of municipal solid waste. While Chinese authorities are planning more incinerators for waste disposal, much of the country’s waste still ends up in landfills, and some of it flows down rivers into the ocean.
At the same time, China is the leading force in the global digital economy. It has the world’s largest e-commerce market, consisting of 42% of global transactions, and the largest mobile payment market, with a transaction value 11 times that of the US. These two pole positions make China the best place in the world to innovate digital solutions for waste.
As a member of the Global Shapers Community, a World Economic Forum initiative to amplify youth voices from around the world, I participated in the IMPROVE project in Shanghai, which enabled me to explore how innovators in the city are digitizing waste management.
Reducing waste in one of China’s fastest-growing industries
In 2017, a viral article on Chinese social media highlighted the environmental impact of packaging from food delivery apps, including from the three largest, Meituan, Ele.me and Baidu Takeout. These platforms made 34 million daily deliveries on average, in the first half of 2018.
In response to increasing pressures to cut packaging waste, Alibaba-backed Ele.me established an in-house sustainability lab in Shanghai, called RELAB, to drive innovative solutions. One of RELAB’s most successful initiatives has been the introduction of a “No Chopsticks” option on the Ele.me app. It has saved 43 million pairs of chopsticks, as of November 2018.
Ant Forest is a popular scheme on Alibaba’s Alipay platform, which gamifies carbon footprinting by tracking sustainable consumer behaviour, such as paying utilities bill online. After the “No Chopsticks” function was integrated with Ant Forest in June 2018, the RELAB team experienced a 5-7x increase in users opting out of receiving utensils.
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Although still in early development, Ele.me’s efforts serve as a case study in how digital platforms can make waste reduction as convenient as ordering food. Ele.me projects that the value of China’s food delivery industry will rocket from 100 billion yuan in 2016 to 700 billion yuan in 2020, growing 62% annually. Implementing waste reduction strategies now will be crucial to managing the industry’s environmental impact as it grows.
Using WeChat to increase recycling in communities
The lack of segregation between organic and dry waste streams remains one of the main barriers to creating more value from recyclables. Several Chinese start-ups are working on disrupting the consumer recycling space by leveraging WeChat’s popularity to encourage segregation. Among these, XiaoHuangGou (XHG), which translates to “Little Yellow Dog”, is one of the most well-funded, raising $164 million in a Series A funding round in 2018.
XHG operates smart trash bins which accept paper, plastics, metal, textiles and glass, and rebates residents directly to their WeChat wallets based on the weight of their trash and the ongoing market rate of the recyclables. XHG then employs its own team of garbage collectors to deliver the segregated waste to a recovery facility for further processing. On our visit to the newly installed XHG smart bins in one Shanghai neighbourhood, we noticed that most users are elders and retirees eager to learn how to recycle their waste and receive a rebate. Could digital grandparents be the waste change-makers in China?
Tackling food waste in hospitality
China’s restaurant industry had sales of $625 billion in 2017, and is poised to keep growing. Winnow, a UK-based certified B Corporation, is a food tech start-up which helps chefs cut food waste using its data platform. Kitchen staff are trained to log the food they are throwing away, which is then automatically weighed by the trash bin. The technology analyzes the value of what is dumped, in both economic and environmental terms, and provides analytics reports to help the kitchen run more efficiently.
Peter Noedler, Executive Chef at Shanghai’s Radisson Blu New World, introduced the system to his staff a year ago. He said that daily adjustments are now made in the kitchen based on Winnow data, and that the cost savings from the lower volume of food waste since using the system have been partly funnelled back into high-quality ingredients and discounts for customers. Globally, Winnow’s system has helped to save one meal from the bin every two seconds, since starting in 2013.
The combination of digital economy proliferation and top-down policy targets, such as a 35% recycling rate for household waste by 2020, is creating opportunities for technology-driven waste solutions in China. In many ways, China is already an innovation superpower. It was one of the first countries to discuss a shift to a circular economy, back in 2002. The country now seems poised to use its innovation engine to make the circular economy vision possible.