#研究分享#【智能收集能否将非正规部门整合到中国的城市资源回收中?】

#研究分享#【智能收集能否将非正规部门整合到中国的城市资源回收中?】收集是可持续固体废物管理和资源回收的关键活动。在许多发展中国家,收集主要由非正规部门进行。随着各种环境,社会,健康和效率问题的出现,废物管理中的互联网和通信技术(ICT)正在制定一个新的收集模型:智能收集。调查发现,在中国,有数十家新兴公司正在从事可回收物品的智能收集。中国的智能收集仍处于早期阶段,还需要进一步探索其可持续商业模式的潜力。

Can intelligent collection integrate informal sector for urban resource recycling in China?

Abstract

Collection is a key activity in sustainable solid waste management and resource recycling. In many developing countries, collection is undertaken mainly by the informal sector. This is accompanied by various environmental, social, health and efficiency problems. Some top-down experiments to integrate informal collection into the waste resource recycling chain have proved unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in waste management are formulating a new collection model: intelligent collection. In China, there are dozens of emerging companies who are engaging in intelligent collection of recyclables. What are the intelligent collection cases in China? Do they have potential to integrate the informal collection into the waste recycling chain? To answer these questions, we selected and interviewed 15 Chinese intelligent collection companies to identify their organisational model and comparative advantages over informal collection. We found that intelligent collection companies in China operated in two forms: human-human interaction collection and human–machine interaction collection. Comparative advantages were found in organisation, trade, data accumulation, and profit making sources. These render them with a high potential to integrate informal collection. Intelligent collection in China is still at an early stage. Its potential for a sustainable business model needs to be further explored. Its application as a supplement to the Municipal Solid Waste collection system and as an exclusive collection for high value waste items under the Extended Producer Responsibility framework seems promising.

Keywords

Intelligent collection
Informal collection
Waste management
Recycling
Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs)
Internet of Things (IoTs)

1. Introduction

Resource recycling provides great potential of resource supply to the society (Brunner and Rechberger, 2004Wen et al., 2015). As recyclable wastes are geographically scattered according to demographic and economic factors (Brunner, 2011). Collection of recyclables from residential households to the recycling facility is a key part of recycling (Nowakowski, 2017). Recyclables collection in many developing countries is undertaken mainly by the informal sector (Wilson et al., 2006). It is widely acknowledged that informal collection contributes to resource recycling in a positive way, but also is associated with various environmental, health, and social problems as well (Ardi and Leisten, 2016Lange, 2013Wilson et al., 2009). Therefore, integrating informal collection in some form seems necessary to move towards a sustainable resource recycling.

Integration of informal collection has been observed in many countries but successful case is rare. Most integration courses solely relied on the public policy and formal collection system, and the private sector is neglected. In recent years, a new collection model emerged because of the wide application of Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and Internet of Things (IoTs) in waste management, we name it intelligent collection. Private companies invested in intelligent collection to collect the recyclable wastes with facilitation of ICTs and IoTs tools. Within the intelligent collection system, consumers can make a collection order through their cellphone application (App) to have their recyclables collected at door and receive credits as return. Consumers may also receive credits by putting the waste PET bottles into the intelligent collection machine. The credits may be spent for their online shopping. There are more than fifty entities engaging in internet-based recyclables collection in China (Sun et al., 2018). It leads to our following research questions: What are the key features of intelligent collection in China? Do they have potential to contribute to the integration of informal collection?

Because development and application of ICTs and IoTs in waste management only risen in recent years, intelligent collection for waste or recyclables is newly sprouted things, studies of intelligent collection mostly take the ex ante angle and focus on technologies. For example, a smart waste collection system is studied for Copenhagen (Gutierrez et al., 2015), and an architecture of an IoT driven system for solid waste collection is proposed generally (Thürer et al., 2016). In China, an IoT network system is experimented for food waste management in Suzhou (Wen et al., 2018), and similarly for waste electrical and electronic equipment management in Hangzhou (Gu et al., 2017).

This paper will take an ex post angle and focus on the economic and social aspects, to analyse the business and organisational model of intelligent collection in China. We identify their forms, analyse their comparative advantages and potential to integrate informal collection. The paper is structured as follows: section 1 raises the research questions. Section 2 reviews informal collection and recent development of intelligent collection as theory background for this paper. Section 3introduces the materials and methods. Section 4 presents the results, including the two forms of intelligent collection and their comparative advantage to informal collection. And discussion and conclusion is provided in section 5 and 6. This paper contributes to the study of intelligent collection and provides insights into the topic of informal collection integration.

2. Informal collection and intelligent collection

2.1. Informal collection

Informal collection for recyclables is the collection carried on by informal sector. The informal sector refers to: “individuals or enterprises who are involved in private sector recycling and waste management activities which are not sponsored, financed, recognised, supported, organised or acknowledged by the formal solid waste authorities, or which operate in violation of, or in competition with, formal authorities” (Scheinberg, 2011). The total informal waste workers is estimated as 0.6% of the world population, and they recycle up to 45% of the generated waste (Lange and Linzner, 2013). Positive contribution of informal sector to resource recycling is widely acknowledged, but still challenges remains (Botello-Álvarez et al., 2018). First is the environmental problem caused by the informal sector activity, this has been well documented by the academia. The other is the efficiency problem. The informal recycling system is characterised by small-scale, low-technology, low-paid, unrecorded and unregulated work (Fei et al., 2016). It only responds to market demands in the reclamation of high value wastes and leaves the others to be sent to dumps (Ezeah et al., 2013). This challenges the stability of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management system, as fluctuation of waste quantity collected by informal collector may cause sudden increase of waste sent to the incineration and landfilling site, and increase public expense as well. Therefore, seeking for informal collection integration solution is a necessity for a sustainable waste management system.

Integration of informal collection has been observed in many countries. However, the results are not yet clear nor satisfying as yet (Fei et al., 2016Linzner and Salhofer, 2014Wilson et al., 2006). Some integration solutions have been framed only through a poverty reduction lensconsidering the economic survival strategies of the collectors, but without paying attention to the sustainability of the collection business model itself (Nzeadibe and Anyadike, 2012). Some have overlooked the social aspects of the informal sector. For example, a formal PET bottles recycling company in Beijing hired scavengers to ensure their waste supply but could not sustain this operation as the situation of the scavengers themselves was not stable in nature (Zhang and Wen, 2014). Experiences of 20 informal sector integration cases from ten low and middle-income countries has shown that most integration attempts were constrained by policy/legal and institutional barriers (Aparcana, 2017). Li compared formal and informal collection channel for recyclables collection, and prove that governance mechanisms set by government was unworkable to integrate the informal collection, instead the consumers preference as the vital factors (Li et al., 2017). Similarly, a survey in Taizhou of China shows that households prefer the informal collection other than the formal collection as their disposal channel of e-waste because of the comparable advantages of informal collection in terms of the convenience of service, flexibility, and accessibility. Therefore integrated collection system should be designed to include the informal collectors (Chi et al., 2014). And this conclusion is also supported by other researchers (Wang et al., 2017).

2.2. Intelligent collection

Intelligent collection is a new collection model by which the waste or recyclables are collected with the assistance of Internet and Communication technologies (ICTs) and Internet of Things (IoTs) tools. There are four groups of tools applied in waste management (Hannan et al., 2015). They are: 1) spatial technologies including Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Remote Sensing (RS). 2) identification technologies involving barcodes, Radio-frequency identification (RFID). 3) data acquisition technologies including sensors and imaging devices. 4) data communication technologies relying on Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM)/GPRS,Zigbee, Wi-FiBluetooth, Very High Frequency Recorder (VHFR). Various combinations of these tools can help handle a variety of waste management problems in a more efficient manner and deal well with cost, time, risk, and environment issues (Lu et al., 2013). 87 cases of ICTs application in waste management have been identified, with nine of these employing intelligent collection (Vitorino de Souza Melaré et al., 2017). Intelligent systems were also applied in 85 municipalities of Italy, raised the recyclables collection efficiency by 85% that contributed to achieving a circular economy target assigned by the EU (Rada et al., 2013). Collection of used paper from small businesses through GIStechniques was trialled in Spain, too (López Alvarez et al., 2008). An intelligent waste management system, named as IEcosys, was trailed in Portugal, that changed the paradigm of people waste disposal from Pay as You Throw to receiving credits for waste separating and recycling (Reis et al., 2015). ICTs and IoTs application are helping to formulate new collection model in waste management and recycling.

Most of the documented intelligent collection are in developed countries, and still at experimental and prototype stage, so insufficiently to discuss their operation cost and efficiency. Studies of intelligent collection have only focused on the technology themselves, but overlooked the business and organisational model of the collection. Rada et al. stated that intelligent collection was not yet well exploited in transient economics (Rada et al., 2013). However, in China, intelligent tools were explored for their applicability for solid waste management and restaurant food waste collection in some developed provinces early in 2009. For example, an intelligent collection system for municipal solid waste was trialled in Pudong, a newly developed district of Shanghai (Rovetta et al., 2009). Similarly, an intelligent system was implemented for restaurant food waste collection and treatment in Suzhou (Wen et al., 2018). These pilot projects are the early intelligent collection trials supported by public funds from government.

In the past three years, intelligent collection for recyclables have been developed very fast in China (Zhou, 2015). This partly is due to the increasing venture capital preference to the internet based business, as “internet + recyclable resource” is another term referring to the intelligent collection in China. Sun observed more than 50 such entities, and identified the maps of the structure of two internet-based WEEE collection business ecosystems C2B (customer to business) and B2B (business to business) (Sun et al., 2018). Wang reviewed ten representatives and illustrated four different cases as typical internet recycling modes (Wang et al., 2018). These studies make a good foundation for profiling intelligent collection in China. Our contribution of this paper is that we analyse the new collection model against the current informal collection background and provide insights of informal sector integration toward the sustainable waste management and resource recycling.

3. Material and method

The research method we adopted is a qualitative analysis with an inductive approach using an open questionnaire and interviews. The approach consists of three steps. Step one is the selection of the research objects, which are from two sources. Firstly, the institution at Tsinghua University, with which the main author is affiliated, together with the China Circular Economy Association (CCEA), initiated the Internet Plus Resources Recycling Alliance (IPRA) in 2016. More than 100 business members joined in the IPRA, one third of which are engaged in the intelligent collection business. The research objects we selected were the companies that have operated for more than two years and have demonstrated business models that were evidently in operation. Secondly, in 2016 and 2017, the Ministry of Commerce of China awarded an excellency status to 20 new collection companies; some were not members of the IPRA but we included them as a supplement to our research sample. Therefore, these selected cases are representatives of the intelligent collection in China.

Step two is information collection and validation. For the information collection, IPRA initiated a call for paper submission by the business members. They were required to present their business operation story, following a prescribed open structured questionnaire. Table 1 lists the questions. In total, 36 companies submitted the case paper. We chose the 12 most relevant and complete cases, and 3 supplementary cases from the above mentioned Ministry of Commerce awards as the research sample. For information validation, we carried out a field survey and interviews with the 15 cases. In the case papers, the companies presented the information by answering the questions in a prescribed layout. This ensured the homogeneity of the information provided by the various companies. In the field survey, we interviewed the managers and staffs to verify these information to ensure consistency and accuracy.

Table 1. Questions list of the open structured questionnaire.

Proceeding to step three, based on the collected and validated information, we used an inductive approach to extract the forms of intelligent collection in China, analyse their comparative advantages and associated integration potential for the informal collection. Table 2provides the general profile of the 15 selected cases. Most of the collection were targeting to collect households recyclables, and they mainly operated in the developed cities in east China, Fig. 1 shows their geographical distribution.

Table 2. Profile of 15 interviewed intelligent collection companies.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1Geographical distribution of the 15 interviewed intelligent collection companies.

4. Results

4.1. Two forms of intelligent collection in China

Collection of recyclables includes at least four steps: from generator to collector; to middleman; to the separation station; and, to the recycling plants finally. The first step is the most complex part. The household recyclables are large quantity and wide distribution. Collection from generator to collector is a high-frequency and multi-player interactive process. The quantity and quality of the recyclables collected from this step will affect the whole recycling efficiency afterwards.

Intelligent collection in China has focused on the innovation at the first step of collection. This takes place in two intelligent collection forms. We define them as human-human interaction collection (HH) and human-machine interaction collection (HM). As shown in Table 3, 11 companies adopted the HH collection form, and the other 4 companies adopted both HH and HM collection forms.

Table 3. Intelligent collection companies and the forms they adopted.

4.1.1. Human-machine interaction collection (HM)

Human-machine interaction collection refers to collection by machine. The machine is a cabinet embedded with ICTs devices that include sensor, barcode and data communication devices. As illustrated in Fig. 2, the HM collection process consists of four steps: 1) Identify account. The machine identifies generator's account information who has registered within the collection company system. 2) Hand over recyclables. The generator hand over the recyclables to the machine following prescribed instructions. 3) Send account/recyclable information. The machine identify the recyclable information and transmit it to the server together with the generator account information. 4) Offer credit. The server offers credit to the generator's account upon receipt of the handed over recyclables information.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2. Procedure of HM interaction collection.

HM collection needs several ICTs tools. The barcode identifies the generator account and the recyclables, which has complete product barcode. The sensor monitors the recyclables data and transmits to the server via GSM/GPRS. Some machines are installed weight and volume sensor to monitor the status of the machine stock and report back to the server.

HM collection is often used for standard recyclables, such as PET bottles. The intelligent collection machines for PET bottles are located in public areas including the office area, schools and shopping mall. Pioneer company INCOME have installed more than 5000 PET bottles intelligent collection machine in Beijing and collected 55 million pieces of PET bottles by 2017. The machine adopts barcode and GPRS communication devices, helps the generator accomplish recycling of PET bottles through three easy steps (Fig. 3). 1) the generator chooses to start collection from the LCD screen. 2) the generator hands over the PET bottles following the displayed instruction. 3) the generator can select the way to receive the awarded credits, he may choose to top up the public transportation commune card, or to donate to charity.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3. Collection procedure of PET bottles collection machine (source: INCOME company).

4.1.2. Human-human interaction collection (HH)

Human-human interaction collection refers to collection by collectors via assistance of ICTs. Generator needs to register an account through the smartphone application (App) developed by the intelligent collection company. The HH collection consists of five steps as shown in Fig. 4. 1) Make appointment. The generator makes appointment through smartphone App about the collection time and items. 2) Give order. The server assign collection order to the nearby collector based on location. 3) Collect at door. The collector collects the recyclables at the door. 4) Send info. The collector input the information of the collected recyclables including the weight, the type and value. 5) Offer credit. The server offers credits to the generator account. One collection is accomplished.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4. Procedure of HH interaction collection.

HH collection needs several ICTs tools. Both generator and collector need a smartphone as basic hardware. The collector carries out the identification and submission of the recyclables information to the server. Data communication is accomplished by WIFI or GPRS.

All interviewed companies adopt the HH interaction collection. In this collection pattern, every collector is in charge of collection service for certain residential area. When they receive collection order from the server, they go to generator's door at the appointed time to carry out collection. For example, company HG established collection service station for every 1000 households to collect waste papercardboard, waste furniture and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEEs) via the assistance of the ICTs tools.

4.1.3. Comparison of HM, HH and informal collection

HM collection and HH collection have different advantages and applicabilityTable 4 compares the ICTs tools, applicability and forms of HM, HH and informal collection. HM collection, same with informal collection, is applicable for standard waste items and for serving public spaces. HH collection is more applicable for any recyclables in the residential areas. In informal collection, collection is accomplished by informal collector randomly and trade takes place in cash. In intelligent collection, generator does not get cash instead of electronic currency or credit for online shopping. Section 4.2 will elaborate more details of advantages of intelligent collection.

Table 4. Comparison of HM, HH and informal collection.

4.2. Four comparative advantages of intelligent collection

4.2.1. Organised collection

Intelligent collection is organised and normative collection. This provides the organisational safeguard for intelligent collection to integrate the informal collection. Fig. 5 illustrates the organised intelligent collection and the random informal collection.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5. Organised intelligent collection and random informal collection.

Informal collection is unorganised and random collection. Street vendors and scavengers are the collectors in informal collection. Vendors wander the street waiting for residents to bring recyclables to them. Scavengers pick up recyclables from the trash bins. The collections time, place, items and their price is randomly. And, the collectors are unstable, too. One collector can be active within a 20 km area, but can leave the sector to take another job at any time. As recyclables in China have a market price, when secondary resource are in high demand in the market, the number of collectors and the recyclables collected will be increased, and vice versa. When the market demand is low, recyclables will be left in the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) stream and end up at incineration or landfill sites. This creates significant challenges for sustainable MSW management in the city. Such randomness is the root causes underlying the social, environmental and health problems associated with informal collection.

In intelligent collection, the application of ICTs tools can standardise and monitor the collection procedure, and help solve the randomness nature of the information collection. This happens by the ICT tools facilitating quick and easy access and recoding of the collection time, place, and frequency that then become organised and regular. Second, every collector takes charge of a fixed residential area and can then develop regular collection relationship with the residents. Such regularity also helps to cultivate the resident's recycling behaviour and good quantity and quality of collected recyclables. Therefore, organised collection and operation by a company in intelligent collection gives the collection legitimacy, and helps eliminate the potential cause of the social and health problems associated with the informal collection.

4.2.2. Efficient material and cash flow

Material flow and cash flow in the intelligent collection system is comparatively efficient. Fig. 6(1) below shows the material flow and cash flow in informal collection. Recyclables are traded and transferred at least four times during the process from the generator to recycling plants. At every transfer step a trade deal is made, price is risen, and the recyclables are sorted according to the higher buyer's standard. Furthermore, the trade-for-cash nature of informal collection leads to a low efficiency of the whole system. Every buyer in the system needs to prepare cash for trading. This exerts a high cash flow pressure on the higher buyer.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6Material flow and cash flow in intelligent collection and informal collection.

Fig. 6(2) shows the material flow and cash flow in intelligent collection. Both the recyclables transference and the trade frequency happen less than that of informal collection. Trade only takes place at two phases: the first phase when recyclables are collected from the generator, and the last phase when recyclables are sold to the recycling plants. For any intelligent collection company that also owns recycling facilities, trade only takes place at the first phase. And, trade of intelligent collection can take place in virtual currency and instead of cash. This brings less cash flow tension for the company. Material flow in intelligent collection system is more efficient than that of informal collection, as the company establishes its own sorting centre to take over the recyclables directly from the collectors. ICTs devices in intelligent collection can monitor and optimise the transportation to save logistic cost. This is proved in the Spanish case mentioned in section 1 (López Alvarez et al., 2008). In a word, less trade and material transfer frequency helps to increase the efficiency of intelligent collection.

4.2.3. Accurate and traceable big data

In the informal collection systems, neither collectors nor traders keep statistics or records of their trade in recyclables, limited to only a cashbook of purchases and sales to monitor the change in profit. This system provides little in the way of accurate statistical data for China's recycling industry. Researchers and policy makers only can reach conclusion of recycling industry development by estimation. Inaccurate data poses barriers for policy and planning for waste management and the development of the circular economy industry. From the government point of view, inaccurate data make policy planning difficult, and leave the recycling as invisible industry in the city. From the business point of view, inaccurate data makes the informal collection unwieldy, even illegal. Informal collection has no opportunity to apply for subsides and tax refunds from the government.

With the intelligent collection system, ICTs tools can help to identify, communicate and store a range of relevant data. First, the system can identify the location and track the logistic routes of the recyclables. Second, the data is accurate, traceable and instant. The intelligent collection system records all information of recyclables from the moment they are handed over to the collectors. The server can provide a comprehensive statistical record of the recyclables collected at any moment in time.

Fig. 7 illustrate that the server system of INCOME company displays the instant and accurate data of its intelligent collection system. It displays the locations and status of 5000 PET bottle collection machines. Green spots show 4577 machines are in good condition, red spots show 120 machines are in full stock, and yellow spots show 303 machines are not working. The system also presents statistics of the active users and real time PET bottles collected. It shows that 12,522 pieces of PET bottle being collected on that day, and lists the top 5 most active collection machines. Therefore, ICTs help to solve the problem of the data absent from the informal collection. Intelligent collection facilitates business management for the company; and supports better administration of waste management for the government.

Fig. 7

Fig. 7. Intelligent collection system monitors 5000 PET bottle collection machines in Beijing (Source: INCOME).

4.2.4. Multi profit-making business model

The organised nature of intelligent collection can help to develop multi profit-making business model. Informal collection is a single linear profit-making system. As above Fig. 6 (1) shows, stakeholder of informal collection at every phase can only earn their profit from the price margin of trading with others. Such linear profit-making model of informal collection is vulnerably affected by the price fluctuation of the secondary materials market.

Intelligent collection is a multi profit-making system. Fig. 8 below shows intelligent collection in China can earn profit from four sources. First, it makes profit from trading or recycling the recyclables. Second, it makes profits from extra service providing to residents. This is the fee paid by the residents when the collector provides an extended service to the residents. In the HH collection pattern mentioned in section 4.1, the collectors can help to deliver the daily living goods and provide housework service when they carry out the collection at door. The residents can use the awarded credit to pay the collection company online for such extra service. 8 of the 15 intelligent collection companies we interviewed had developed such extended service business within their intelligent collection system.

Fig. 8

Fig. 8. Multi profit making model of intelligent collection.

The third profit source is the data. ICTs devices adopted in intelligent collection system provide the means to accumulate massive amounts of data of recyclables generation, residents consuming and recycling behaviour. These data can be useful for the producers and retailers. The intelligent collection company can make a profit from mining the data for producer and retailer enterprises. For example, INCOME company monitors their thousands of PET bottle collection machines, tracks and analyses the beverage consuming behaviours, and makes considerable profit by sharing the information with the beverage producer.

The last source is policy profit. This is the policy anticipation and subsidy the intelligent collection company can get from the government. The intelligent collection company can accumulate a massive recyclables database, full of information that is important to the government to enable it to make proper policy and take proper management action. Sharing data with government can make policy anticipation about recycling and waste management. More importantly, accurate collection data provide obvious evidence of intelligent collection contribution to the waste source separation and reduction. This render the company to enjoy subsidies from the government. For example, Guangzhou municipality had released a policy to provide 90 RMB subsidy for every tonne of low-value recyclables collected by the intelligent collection company.

5. Discussion

5.1. Approach of intelligent collection integrate informal collection

Section 4 reveals that intelligent collection in China has comparative advantages over the informal collection system in terms of organisation, trade, data accumulation, and profit-making model. These advantages help to solve partially the social, environmental and efficiency problems associated with the informal collection. And render intelligent collection with potential to integrate informal collection.

There are two approaches of integration among the selected companies. One is depth integration. With this approach, the intelligent collection company hires the experienced collectors from the informal sector, equips them with smartphones and intelligent devices, and trains them with methods of intelligent collection. The collectors can enjoy social insurance and welfare benefits provided by the company. And they can see their social status also rises. These are benefits that are absent for a collector in the informal sector. Thus, the integration approach would seem to bring satisfaction to both sides. The other approach is collaboration integration. In this approach, informal collector can join in the company's intelligent collection platform as a collaborator instead of employee. He receives collection orders from the system, accomplished the collection and get awards from the system. Most companies we interviewed take the first approach and integrate many collectors from the local informal sector. For example, the HG company integrated 1233 collectors in Hangzhou, and INCOME hired 450 collectors in Beijing.

5.2. Extent of intelligent collection integrate informal collection

The degree of the integration is still limited due to two observation. First, the informal sector in China is currently in a state of depression due to various social, economical and population factors. The younger generation are less willing to inherit the collection business after the old generation collectors retire, given that this sector has a bad social image and a reputation for poor working conditions. The increasing meticulous city planning and management leaves an ever-decreasing space for the informal collectors to make living on collection in the city. For example, Beijing is determined to dismiss two million ‘lower end industry’ people according to the latest city planning. The ‘lower end industry’ includes the wholesale and retail elements of the large-scale free markets, as well as the recycling industry. Several recyclables trading markets and sorting centre were relocated in the remote suburban area or adjacent cities. This increased cost of informal collection. Furthermore, the falling price of secondary resources from the market and environmental protectionactions by the government make the situation worse. Many recycling plants were shut down and numbers of the collectors decreased sharply. According to the China National Recycling Resources Association, three million people in China's informal sector have left the industry since 2015. As a consequence, large quantities of recyclables have had to be dumped into incineration and landfill sites. For example, collected municipal waste that ended up at incineration and landfill sites in Beijing increased by 20% in 2016. This is attributed partially to the loss of informal collectors and recycling industry. These factors are fully recognised by other author as threats to the future existence of the informal sector in China (Steuer et al., 2018).

Second, HM intelligent collection has become increasingly more applicable. This leaves less room for integrating the informal collectors by means of HH intelligent collection. Many companies started intelligent collection with the HH form by hiring collectors from informal sector to carry out door-to-door collection. Because HH collection shared much similarity with the informal collection that the residents were used to and more acceptable at the beginning. However, the labour cost of HH collection is much higher than the HM form, so many companies started to turn to HM collection. Besides, in China, the driving force of residents’ recycling behaviour is witnessing a change from recycling for money to recycling for environment. The cash rewards nature of the informal collection is losing attraction to the residents. Instead, the HM collection has become an interesting and convenient way for people to recycle at any time. Therefore, the extent that the intelligent collection integrate the informal collection is limited. Intelligent collection will integrate a small number of informal collectors in the short term, and will very likely replace the informal collection system in the long run.

5.3. Other application of intelligent collection

Number of challenges still exist. First, in the current social and economictransition process of China, people do not pay for their waste generation and collection, but sell recyclables for money. This is different to the ‘pay as you throw’ situation common in developed countries. This leaves less profit opportunity for intelligent collection. Second, although government recognises the collection of recyclables does indeed bring benefits for waste source separation and reduction, favourable subsidy policy is not a common practice yet. It is still just a trial in only Guangzhou and Beijing, and remains under discussion in other cities. This hampers the intelligent collection companies to be able to continue their experimental business. Some companies took a wait-and-see attitude, suspended the project, and awaited a more substantial and favourable policy from the government.

In the long run, intelligent collection seem more promising in two areas. First, intelligent collection acts as supplement to the formal MSW collection system, and does provide a waste sources separation service. Since China president Xi Jinping addressed waste source separation and reduction on many high profile occasions, China's government has created the “Implementation Scheme of MSW Separation System” where 46 pilot cities are required to increase recycling rate to 35% by 2020. Local government will likely put more efforts and resources on this issue. Several key intelligent companies are exploring cooperation with local MSW collection systems to improve and achieve their waste separation and reduction target.

Second, intelligent collection can be combined with the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework to establish exclusive collection system for special or high resource value waste, such as the WEEEs. In the recently released China EPR working plan, China's government will trial EPR framework for four products, Electronic and electrical product, vehicle, lead-acid battery, and paper-based beverage package. An intelligent collection platform for lead-acid battery has been trialled within the EPR framework in Shanghai (Wu et al., 2017). Besides, China has established 49 national urban mining pilots (Xue et al., 2017), and many WEEEs recycling plants are operated in short of supply because informal sector collected the most stock and trade to illegal plants for a higher price (Chi et al., 2011). The intelligent collection system, combined with the EPR, may provide a solution for the high resource value wastes recycling and urban mining.

6. Conclusion

The application of ICTs in waste management has formulated an intelligent collection model. Intelligent collection in other countries are only at a prototype or experimental stage and with support of public funds. However, many private companies in China have invested in intelligent collection for recyclables. Compared with the informal collection that has prevailed in past decades, current intelligent collection in China adopts two forms: Human-human interaction collection (HH), and Human-machine interaction collection (HM). Intelligent collection has clear comparative advantages over the informal collection in terms of the organisation, trading and logistics, massive data accumulation, and multi profit-making sources. These advantages render intelligent collection with the potential to integrate or replace the informal collection. One of the general integration approaches is to hire the informal collectors as employees of intelligent collection companies.

The intelligent collection applications for waste management in some European countries is seen as a solution to achieve the newly assigned resource recycling goal under the EU Waste Framework Directive (Rada et al., 2013). In the current transitional status of China, the informal sector is in depression due to various social, economical and city planning factors. It is foreseen that intelligent collection will assimilate the informal sector only partially in short term, but will likely replace it in the long run. Intelligent collection in China is still in its early stages. A truly sustainable business model is not clear yet, as economic and policy challenges exist. Under the current situation, intelligent collection application is more promising in two areas. First, it can act as supplement to the formal MSW collection system, and help reduce the waste source generation and save public expense on waste management. Second, it can combine within the EPR framework and establish an exclusive intelligent collection platform for some high resource value waste items, thus help ensure the quantity and quality collection for urban mining.

Declarations of interest

None.

Acknowledgement

This work was supported by the Thirteenth Five-Year" National Key Research and Development Program of China (2016YFC0502800), the National Natural Science Foundation for Outstanding Young Scholars of China (71522011), and open fund of Institute for China Sustainable UrbanisationTsinghua University (TUCSU-K-17024-17). The authors would also like to thank China Association of Circular Economy for facilitating the field survey. Our deepest gratitude goes to editor Dr. Kannan Govindan and anonymous reviewers for their fast review processand thoughtful suggestions that have helped improve this paper substantially.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095965261833172X


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