Shanghai’s new mandatory trash-sorting scheme — which includes fines up to 200 RMB ($29 U.S.) for individual violators — has created an opportunity for c-to-c marketplace Taobao, and its parent company Alibaba (NYSE: BABA).

Immediately after the announcement of the new scheme, about 30 Alibaba employees –– including product managers, front-end engineers, algorithm engineers, and designers –– formed a volunteer task force to find a technology-based solution. In less than 48 hours, they piloted an artificial intelligence-powered “trash-recognition” tool on the Taobao app to help residents properly sort their garbage. More than 12 million users have used the new feature to date, Taobao said.

The Taobao app shows users which category the trash belongs to, as well as a shortcut to a special channel on Xianyu — Alibaba’s used-goods marketplace — where recyclers can book free pick-up services for everything from old clothes to refrigerators. Users also receive corresponding “green power” points on Alipay’s Ant Forest carbon offset scheme when they recycle.

“We wanted to use AI to help solve social problems, to make garbage-sorting less difficult and more fun and convenient,” Lin Jie, a task force volunteer and senior product manager at Taobao, said.

Over the past few years, Alibaba has transformed Taobao from a dubious online flea market into a 700 million-user mobile hub with e-commerce versions of Facebook’s news feed and Instagram/Snap’s viral short-video content. Its partner platform, Xianyu, now sees more than two million listings per day.


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