Using waste in good taste
A look into Shanghai’s textile recycling initiatives and what companies and individuals have done to reduce the city’s high waste output
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 notice to recycling efforts, such as offering more policy support, establishing an efficient recycling system, and increasing the added value of recycled products,” said Sun Huaibin, deputy secretary-general of China National Textile and Apparel Council.
There are numerous ways that the city can reduce its high waste output, and it seems that recycling its discarded textile products could provide one of the most effective options. 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 of the annual output of Daqing Oilfield, one of China’s largest oilfields.
Apart from energy savings, clothing recycling can also help reduce China’s carbon footprint. According to a report by Xinhuanet.com, 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.
The Shanghai municipal government had in 2011 initiated a project to address this issue, providing various communities in Shanghai with 2,000 recycling boxes for unwanted clothes. These boxes collected 1,100 tons of secondhand clothing in 2014.
“People produce trash day after day, and regardless of whether it’s handled by incineration or landfilling, this trash will hurt the environment where all of us live. Through recycling practices, we can make our own contributions to the improvement of our environment,” said Yang Yinghong, who serves as chairman at 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 worth of sweaters before sending them to needy students in less developed regions.
“Since 2012, our volunteers have weaved 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,” said Yang.
Yang added that summer clothes, which account for 12.8 percent of the total received, are usually exported following a series of disinfection processes. 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 like cleaning cloths and mops.
Fueled by a growing middle class with increasing amounts of disposable income, China consumes about 1.6 trillion yuan ($258 billion) worth of clothes every year. In cities like Shanghai, the average spending of its people’s last luxury purchase is $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 to just 77 percent of New Yorkers.
The rapid expansion of fast fashion businesses have also led people to buy more clothes than they need, thus generating more clothing wastage, said Zhang Na, an independent designer working on a non-profit project to refashion discarded clothing.
“Inculcating a spirit of danshari may provide a solution to this problem,” said 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 added 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 is made up of unmarketable products by luxury brands,” Zhang noted.
In 2013, Swedish retail clothing giant H&M became the world’s first fashion company to launch a global clothes recycling program called the Garment Collecting Initiative. The brand, which has been rapidly expanding its operations in the Chinese market, allows customers to donate their unwanted clothing at any of their 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,” said Magnus Olsson, country manager of H&M Greater China.
In 2014, 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 closedloop 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 in 2014, double the amount in the previous year and equivalent to the weight of about 65 million new t-shirts. As of July 14, 2015, H&M China has collected more than 870 tons of textiles in the Chinese mainland.
While 95 percent of discarded clothes can be re-worn or recycled, only a small amount are actually being repurposed, illustrating that much more needs to be done to address the issue. Tapping onto 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 the official launch of his company in March last year, Li and his colleagues have collected 20 tons of clothes from communities in Changning district.
The 24-year-old is hoping to expand his business to more Shanghai districts in the coming years while also planning to offer tailor-made services to refashion used clothes.
“I want to offer a service that redesigns used clothes for customers so that these garments get a second lease of life,” he said.
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 kids in Yushu, Qinghai province, every year, said that a lot of donations are summer clothing and they are “useless for people living in the grasslands”.
He added that clothes must be sanitized before they are donated or they could end up as waste instead. “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,” he said.
“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,” urged Hu.
There are many products today made using recycled cloth as awareness for sustainability grows in the city.
A woman places a bag of unwanted clothes at the garment collection point in an H&M store in Shanghai.
Creations from designer Zhang Na's Reclothing Bank give old garments a new lease of life.
Designer Zhang Na (left) works at her studio in Shanghai.