Alipay launched two mini-programs on Friday to help Shanghai citizens navigate the eastern Chinese city’s tough new trash-sorting regulations, which came into effect today.

Some 500,000 Shanghai residents have accessed the apps over the past three days, the Hangzhou-based payments giant told TechNode. The mini-programs help citizens to understand which bin to use for the waste by looking up the object they want to throw away or by taking a photo of it.

“The apps’ main feature is about sorting tips, waste image identification, and O2O (offline-to offline) recycling,” said a company spokesperson. “There will be more features involving voice recognition, image identification and AR interaction.”

Local authorities have brought in new rules that have been called the country’s “strictest regulations on waste-sorting” in media reports. Organizations who don’t follow them face a fine of up to RMB 50,000 (around $7,311) while individuals could receive a penalty of RMB 200 ($29).

There are 75 trash sorting programs planned for Alipay, said the spokesperson citing applications mostly from June. Around 58 of them are under development, six are awaiting approval, another six have been rejected and four are already available.

“Does a cosmetic mask count as wet waste? Is a newspaper used to clean up after your pet hazardous or recyclable? If you cannot answer these, you can search for them on Alipay ‘waste-sorting guide’ (our translation),” states a Weibo post from the company.

Trash-sorting has become a hot topic online in recent weeks as Shanghai citizens joked about the tricky categorization issues, which include crayfish shells, cat litter and cosmetic masks. Popular search terms on the platform so far include “dragon slayer,” a gaming reference, as well as “pet excrement” and “seed shells.”

Hundreds of thousands of new users have descended on the platform looking for advice, according to the spokesperson. “We believe that as waste-sorting has been implemented so widely, growth will hit new heights,” she added.

Some users have taken a more light-hearted view of the new rules, entering funny terms into the platforms and taking to social media to post the results. One of the most popular on Weibo was a screenshot of the result for “ex-boyfriend.” The platform emphasized that “although this is not trash, it may be hazardous,” adding that recyling is not recommended if the ex is a “playboy.”

Sustainability has beome a major focus of governmental campaigns in China as the country steps up efforts to promote quality economic growth over quantity. Similar solutions are also found on WeChat’s mini-program library and in app stores.

Besides the look-up functions, the apps have also modernized recycling operations with users able to sell waste to recycling platforms online.

TechNode submitted a recycling order on Monday morning through the Yidaishou platform and its staff called back within 10 minutes. “We can reach you wherever you are in Shanghai,” said the employee surnamed Wu.

They launched the online service back in April, she said, adding that users can either receive payments or “green energy” used on Alipay’s environmental social game Ant Forest. Users don’t need to pay for delivery costs but the operator only accepts items over a certain quantity, for example, 10 kilograms of clothes, she added.

Rachel Zhang is a reporting intern in TechNode's Shanghai office. She is earning a master's degree in journalism at the University of Hong Kong and holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering....

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