Using waste in good taste (China Daily)

Textile recycling initiatives by companies and individuals are reducing Shanghai’s huge pile of waste.

There are only two mountains in Shanghai. The first is a popular travel destination for locals in the Sheshan National Tourist Resort in Songjiang district. The other has the ignominy of being a mountain of trash.

Shanghai has a daily waste output of 22,000 tons, and about 70 percent of it is channeled to the Laogang Landfill, which occupies 4.1 million square meters of space near the East China Sea in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area. The result is a massive pile of trash that stands as an indication of a problem that requires urgent attention.

“The large amount of disposed resources require us to pay serious attention to recycling efforts, such as offering more policy support, establishing an efficient recycling system, and increasing the added value of recycled products,” says Sun Huaibin, deputy secretary-general of the China National Textile and Apparel Council.

There are numerous ways that the city can reduce its output of waste, and recycling its discarded textile products is one possibility. According to statistics from the China National Textile and Apparel Council, recycling all discarded textile products would generate the same amount of energy as 24 million tons of crude fuel, equivalent to more than half the annual output of Daqing Oilfield, one of China’s largest oilfields.

Apart from energy savings, recycling clothes can also help reduce China’s carbon footprint. According to a report by, textile recycling can cut carbon dioxide emission by 80 million tons every year.

However, less than 10 percent of discarded textile products are currently recycled in major cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, Guangdong province.

Government action

In 2011, the Shanghai municipal government initiated a project to tackle this issue, providing various communities with 2,000 recycling boxes for unwanted clothes. These boxes collected 1,100 tons of second-hand clothing last year.

“People produce trash day after day, and regardless of whether it’s handled by incineration or landfilling, it will hurt the environment where all of us live. Through recycling practices, we can make our own contributions to improve our environment,” says Yang Yinghong, who serves as chairman of Shanghai Yuanyuan Industrial Co Ltd, one of the three enterprises involved in the launch of this government project.

Last year, 21.32 tons of warm clothing that were still in good condition were sent to help people in China’s poorer regions, while volunteers helped to take apart and reweave another 1.15 tons of sweaters before sending them to needy students in less developed regions.

“Since 2012, our volunteers have woven more than 5,000 sweaters from used clothes for students of Hope Primary Schools in Anhui, Guizhou, Shaanxi provinces, Guangxi Zhuang and Tibet autonomous regions,” Yang says.

Summer clothes, which account for 12.8 percent of the total received, are usually exported following a series of disinfection processes, she says. The majority of the collected clothes will be sent to related enterprises for further recycling – for instance, garments could be shredded to create household products such as cleaning cloths and mops.

Excessive buying

Fueled by a growing middle class with growing disposable income, China consumes about 1.6 trillion yuan ($258 billion) worth of clothes every year. In some big cities, the average spending of its people’s last luxury purchase is as much as $1,010, according to research by Milan-based company ContactLab.

Four out of five Shanghai residents surveyed purchased at least one luxury product within the past year, and 91 percent said they would be ready to purchase another item within the next six months, compared with just 77 percent of New Yorkers.

The rapid expansion of fast-fashion businesses has also led people to buy more clothes than they need, thus generating more clothing wastage, says Zhang Na, a designer working on a non-profit project to refashion discarded clothing.

“Inculcating a spirit of danshari may provide a solution to this problem,” says Zhang. Danshari, originally a book from Japan, is the notion that one should get rid of unneeded items in life and adopt an austere, minimalist approach to possessions.

Zhang says that the clothes she uses for her project generally come from three sources. “We do not know the owners of the majority of the clothes we receive. About 20 percent of the clothes sent to us have a story behind them while another 10 percent are made up of unmarketable products by luxury brands.”

Corporate responsibility

In 2013, Swedish retail clothing giant H&M became the world’s first big fashion company to launch a global clothes recycling program, called the Garment Collecting Initiative. The brand, which has been rapidly expanding its operations in China, allows customers to donate their unwanted clothing at any of its stores around the world.

“Any pieces of clothing, regardless of its brand and the condition it’s in, are accepted. In return, the customer will receive a voucher for each bag of clothing brought in,” says Magnus Olsson, country manager of H&M Greater China.

Last year, H&M launched its first batch of “close the loop” fashion products, which are made from recycled clothing. The company is also aiming to increase the production of such clothing by 300 percent by the end of this year.

According to a research report on textile recycling by the China National Textile and Apparel Council, such closed-loop products can help reduce the environmental impact of garment wastage and effectively cut resource consumption.

H&M’s garment collection program had amassed more than 13,000 tons of textiles worldwide last ear, double the amount in the previous year and equivalent to the weight of about 65 million new T-shirts. By July 14, H&M China had collected more than 870 tons of textiles in the Chinese mainland.

Effective recycling

While 95 percent of discarded garments can be re-worn or recycled, only a small portion of these is being repurposed, illustrating that much more needs to be done to address the issue. Tapping into an increasing awareness of this problem, a number of young Chinese entrepreneurs have entered the fray with clothes recycling businesses.

Li Bowen is one such entrepreneur, and he has been working on his recycling business for nearly two years. Since he set up his company in March last year, Li and his colleagues have collected 20 tons of clothes from communities in Changning district of Shanghai.

The 24-year-old hopes to expand his business to more Shanghai districts in the coming years and plans to offer tailor-made services to refashion used clothes.

“I want to offer a service that redesigns used clothes for customers so these garments get a second lease of life,” he says.

While coming forward with unwanted garments for recycling is a good thing to do, Hu Kaishen, the founder of Futian Environmental Protection Educator, has urged people to be considerate and exercise some responsibility by donating only the specific clothing required by respective collectors.

Hu’s organization, which helps provide winter clothing for 5,000 adults and 5,000 children in Yushu, Qinghai province, every year, says that a lot of donations are summer clothing and are “useless for people living in the grasslands”.

Clothes must be sanitized before they are donated or they could end up as waste instead, he says. “All donated clothes should be 100 percent clean – nobody wants to wear a piece of clothing that could have possibly been worn by someone with an infectious disease.”

“Used clothes that cannot be recycled properly will just cause further pollution instead of helping the situation. If we’re going to do something good, let’s at least do it right.”

The ecology of fashion

This dress is made from used clothes after cleaning, disinfection, tearing down, redesign and restructuring. Provided By Reclothing Bank

Chinese independent designer Zhang Na had been lauded for her fashion collection at a show in Austria. That praise later gree into great respect when people discovered that more than 20 items in her collection were recycled from used clothing.

“I did not tell the organizer in advance because I didn’t want to make it a big deal. Apparently they did not expect a Chinese to do something like this,” says the 35-year-old Beijing native.

Born into a family of academics and artists, Zhang studied fashion design at MOD’ART International Paris and Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Shanghai in 2004, citing the city’s easy access to a “sufficient industrial chain for a fashion industry” as well as her fascination with Shanghai being where her favorite writer Eileen Chang used to live and write.

Zhang later established her fashion label Fake Natoo in 2008, and after spending a couple of years developing her own brand, she started to wonder about the necessity of producing new clothes season after season. She realized that instead of creating new clothing all the time, it would be more interesting and meaningful to turn old garments into new creations. With that in mind, she started the Reclothing Bank in 2010, determined to give old clothing a new lease of life. The creations at the Austria fashion show were Zhang’s first batch of refashioned clothes.

“It is good to see fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M provide the opportunity for young Chinese people to buy affordable clothes with similar styles as top luxury brands. But do we really need so many new clothes?” she says.

“Each used piece of clothing tells a story of its owner’s happiness or sorrows, and deserve to be treated well,” Zhang says.

Since 2010, Zhang has refashioned nearly 500 pieces of clothing, according to the fashion seasons, for Reclothing Bank. Most were sold domestically.

Although the act of recycling garments is free, processes such as cleaning and disinfecting, deconstruction of the clothing as well as redesign and restructuring are not. It takes Zhang between two weeks and a month to refashion a piece of clothing.

“Every piece of clothing has its unique characteristics from the age it was from, and what I am doing is to recall its special features and adapt them to the modern context.”

With the success of her own brand, Zhang says that she is now able to devote half her time and efforts to building up the Reclothing Bank project. She has no plans to expand this project but she does believe that it is only a matter of time before people embrace the principles of recycling and this way of fashion.

“It is like a flower, which only blooms when the time is right. And you will know once it is ripe.”

Zhang Na tries to prolong the lifespan of used clothes by redesigning them into fashion. Provided By Reclothing Bank

(China Daily 09/05/2015 page14)