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China Tackles Towering Garbage Heaps With Artificial Intelligence

China Tackles Towering Garbage Heaps With Artificial Intelligence

published 21 hours ago

Submitted by Alibaba Group

Plastic trash in Zhangjiajie, China
Plastic trash in Zhangjiajie, China. Image credit: Shutterstock

Alibaba Cloud is using artificial intelligence to make waste incineration more energy efficient in China.

Automation is sweeping the nation with more than 100 waste incinerators in 30 Chinese cities – roughly one in every ten garbage incinerators in the country – using artificial intelligence.

Traditionally, garbage incineration has been a labor-intensive task that requires operators to constantly adjust control emissions, temperatures and air pressure in the kiln.

“Through automation, we have changed the way garbage treatment plants operate, [to] Zeng Zhenyu, Vice President of Alibaba Cloud told Alizila.

The issue of solid waste disposal – literally – looms over towns, which produced nearly 235.1 million tons in 2020 and are on track to generate 326 million tons by 2030.

In the face of growing piles of rubbish and shrinking landfill spaces, waste incineration has become the preferred method, albeit a labor- and resource-intensive method that can emit toxins.

Artificial intelligence, which has transformed many traditional industries from energy to automobiles, uses image recognition to assess combustion levels based on images of flames taken by cameras in the furnace. The AI ​​algorithm can detect incomplete combustion based on the shape of the flame and will automatically adjust parameters, such as temperature, oxygen level and vapor level, to maintain optimum incinerator efficiency, reduce toxic emissions and increase energy production.

The volume of municipal solid waste has been increasing over the years in China and is on track to reach 326 million tons by 2030

Helping hand

Alibaba Cloud uses artificial intelligence to automate monitoring of incineration in waste incineration facilities, resulting in more stable combustion temperatures and greater efficiency, which means there is less need to shutdown and restart furnaces.

“Artificial intelligence is a great helper. It frees workers from huge workloads and helps stabilize production,” said Wang Zonglin, general manager of a waste incinerator in south China’s Jiangxi Province.

He explained that workers at Wang’s workplace used to monitor the incinerators 24/7 and click the mouse every ten seconds. Failure to adjust the parameters in time may cause a fluctuation of 30% in combustion, causing an incomplete reaction that will lead to toxic emissions.

“Even between shifts, burning conditions fluctuate, such as air flows and the rate of waste being fed into the kiln, because not all operators are experienced,” Wang said.

China’s labor shortage adds to the problem. As young Chinese are unwilling to take on manual jobs, the demand for experienced operators is high. In Wang’s incinerator, the software turns on the incinerator 95% of the time, and human intervention is required only in extreme situations.

There is certainly still room for improvement. Some incinerators burn recyclable materials such as plastic, rubber and fabric, said Zhang Jingning, project manager at Wuhu Eco Center, an environmental NGO.

Although they have high heating values, they can be recycled as resources, and this should reduce carbon emissions.

“Aside from increasing the stability of combustion, we would also like to see more garbage management plants investing in garbage sorting, to have a more diversified approach to waste management,” he noted.

An Alibaba Cloud engineer works with an operator in a waste management plant.
An Alibaba Cloud engineer works with an operator in a waste management plant. Image credit: Alibaba Group

Wastage of electric power

However, China has made great strides towards an environmentally friendly process. Automatic adjustment also means that incinerators can extract more energy from the same amount of waste.

Solid waste in China has a higher moisture content than that of many developed countries. Due to incomplete sorting, there is a large amount of kitchen waste left in the garbage. So-called wet food waste, such as fruit and vegetable peels, has a much lower heating value, and does not make efficient fuel for an incinerator.

But by maintaining constant temperatures, Alibaba Cloud’s AI platform was able to increase per capita electricity generation efficiency by about 3% at the Wang incinerator. This translates to a daily increase of 16,200 kWh of electricity.

Nationally, the installation of the AI ​​platform has generated an additional 360 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, according to the platform, enough to power 33,600 American homes.

By the end of the year, more than 300 waste incinerators in China will benefit from the artificial intelligence of Alibaba Cloud for waste disposal.

“[AI] An integral part of the larger task ahead, is to use technology to advance the digital transformation of the waste disposal industry, said Huang Kunsheng, a professor in the School of Energy Engineering at Zhejiang University.

Every day is Earth Day at Alibaba. As this World Awareness Day approaches, we invite you to explore how we put the environment first and how you can too

Please refer to for additional information on Alibaba’s sustainability efforts.

A waste management plant in China using artificial intelligence.
A waste management plant in China using artificial intelligence. Image credit: Alibaba Group
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