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Bursting at the seams: Singapore's cast-off clothing

More than 156,000 tonnes of textile and leather waste was thrown away by Singaporeans last year, but only 8 per cent of such waste is recycled. Lianne Chia investigates whether the rate can be increased. 

SINGAPORE: Racks of brightly coloured clothes line the aisles at the Salvation Army’s Family Thrift Store in Tanglin. A mannequin sporting a black, curly wig wears a black-and-white printed dress, while another models a red dress with a black skinny belt.

The racks are jammed tightly with clothes of varying patterns, sizes and brands, with some evidently brand new with tags still attached.


The Salvation Army's Family Thrift Store in Tanglin. (Photo: Winnie Goh)

Singaporeans looking to clear their bursting wardrobes often turn to the charity as their first port of call. It accepts donations of clothing, furniture and other items like household goods.

But what is displayed in this store - and in fact across their five thrift stores islandwide - is only a small fraction of what it gets on a daily basis.

On average, the Salvation Army receives about 10 tonnes of donated items per day, about 60 per cent of which is clothing. The amount can go up to about 30 tonnes a day during peak periods like the month leading up to Christmas.

And the burgeoning mounds of clothes taken in by the charity highlights a larger problem - the sheer amount of cast-off clothing generated by Singaporeans.

BUYING MORE THAN NEEDED

According to statistics from the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore generated 156,700 tonnes of textile and leather waste last year. This category, according to an NEA spokesperson, includes used clothing, linen and bags.

But of this amount, only 12,500 tonnes were recycled, which brings Singapore’s recycling rate in this category to just 8 per cent. NEA said textile and leather waste that is “not segregated at source for recycling or reuse” is incinerated.

Singapore's rate appears to be part of a global problem. In the US, only about 16 per cent of textile waste was recycled in 2014, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency. In the UK, it is 14 per cent, according to a report published last year by the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, citing 2011 figures. 


Reducing the amount of clothing waste in Singapore is a challenge, according to Ms Nuramirah Suyin Zaihan, an environmental engineer at the Singapore Environment Council (SEC). Greater spending power naturally fuels the consumption rate of goods, leading to consumers buying more than they need, she explained.

“Consumers are unable to see the connection between clothing consumption and the resultant waste that they produce,” she said.

The proliferation of fast-fashion chains in neighbourhood malls may also be contributing to the issue.

“The emphasis of mass production of such clothing to consumers can result in clothes that are of poor quality and are not meant to last long,” explained Ms Nuramirah. “These clothes will not only have a low resale value, but have a high chance of ending up as waste."

“The competitive prices and convenience brought about by online shops and marketplaces also accelerate the clothing waste issue,” she added.

Research suggests this could be a key factor behind some people's buying habits.

As part of an upcoming documentary The Trash Trail, Channel NewsAsia surveyed 1,000 Singaporeans to find out how much clothing they discard, and why.

According to the results, Singaporeans buy about 34 pieces of brand new apparel per year, with almost half of them citing discounts as the main driver for doing so. And on average, they discard 27 items of clothing per year, citing reasons like “making space for new clothes”, “no longer fits” and “there are defects”.

LACK OF AWARENESS

People in Singapore are generally not aware of how and where they can recycle their old clothes, said Ms Nuramirah.

She added that due to a lack of education on proper recycling, cross-contamination of recycling bins is also a problem. “People should practise proper recycling habits by bagging recyclables like clothing waste and sealing it thoroughly to avoid any cross-contamination,” she said.

Unlike paper or food waste, which is thrown away instantly, clothing waste also tends to accumulate over long periods of time and gets discarded in large quantities when people spring-clean their wardrobes.

She added that as a result, it is common to find people donating their old clothes to charities like the Salvation Army.

A donation point at the Salvation Army Family Hub in Tanglin. (Photo: Winnie Goh) 

TOO MANY CLOTHES

The Salvation Army estimates that only about 8 to 10 per cent of donated clothes will be put on sale to members of the public because of the sheer number of items they receive. 

“We receive so much clothing per day that it’s impossible for us to put it all on display in our shops,” said Mr David Lim, senior manager of wholesale and export for Red Shield Industries, the charity’s social enterprise arm.


Workers at the Salvation Army sort donated clothing at its central processing centre. (Photo: Winnie Goh) 

He explained that the clothes on sale at the charity’s thrift stores have passed two rounds of quality checks - first at the charity’s central processing centre, and again at the shop. Whatever does not make the cut will be returned to the processing centre for export to Malaysia and Indonesia.


Jumbo bags of donated clothes are prepared for export at the Salvation Army's central processing centre. Each bag holds about 400kg. (Photo: Winnie Goh) 

“The funds we receive will help the Salvation Army in transforming lives,” he added.

But while donating to charities is one way to reduce the amount of clothes being thrown away in Singapore, Ms Nuramirah noted that “a mindset and lifestyle change is needed”.

How can this mindset and lifestyle change be effected? For one woman, the answer comes in the form of a sewing needle.

THE ART OF UPCYCLING

While Singaporeans throng shopping malls looking for the latest cheap clothing, Ms Agatha Lee estimates that she buys new clothes for herself and her family only once or twice a year.

Instead, she combines her skill with the sewing needle with her passion for the environment and finds ways to turn her old clothes into new items for herself and her home. She describes the process as “upcycling”, or turning discarded items into functional products of even higher quality and value.


Ms Agatha Lee was inspired to upcycle her old clothes into new items for herself and her home. (Photo: Winnie Goh) 

She recounted: “A few years back, I realised I had a lot of clothes in my wardrobe. Initially, I was going to throw them away or donate them, but then I realised it would be such a waste because while I was clearing out my wardrobe, I would also be buying even more clothes.

“I browsed on the Internet and realised there was a whole community of people who were upcycling their clothes, so that was how I got started.”

A look around her Woodlands flat reveals evidence of her creative flair: A desk chair has been reupholstered with covers made out of an old pair of jeans. Her cat is curled up on a picnic blanket made out of scrap material from discarded clothes. And a mannequin displays a halter top made out of what used to be a pair of trousers.


Some of Ms Lee's upcycled creations. (Photo: Winnie Goh)

It was not long before Ms Lee, who works part-time, began sharing her upcycling tutorials online. And her friends soon encouraged her to start running workshops to show Singaporeans how their unwanted clothes can be turned into something new.

“I was engaged by a lot of corporates and schools, and last year, I decided to have my own series of workshops,” she said. Participants in her full-day workshop learn the basics of sewing using a sewing machine, and try their hand at turning two or three of their own items of clothing into something new.

“At the last workshop, one lady converted her dress into her bag that was really well done, and there was another lady who had never sewn in her life, and she converted two of her husband’s T-shirts into cushion covers, complete with zips,” she recalled.

“You don’t need a lot of sewing skills and you don’t need to chop up the whole item to make it into another garment,” she added. “It can actually be a very fun activity and doesn’t have to take too much time.”


Ms Lee turns half an old top into a drawstring bag. (Photo: Winnie Goh) 

But upcycling aside, Ms Lee said the simplest means of reducing the vast amount of clothing waste Singapore generates is for people to change their mindset and buy fewer clothes. “Even before you enter the store, decide whether you even need that item of clothing,” she said.

“Because once you buy it and find you don’t want to wear it anymore, you’re probably going to end up throwing it into the bin.”

SECOND-HAND FIRST

And that is where one business comes in - to save good clothing from the bin and in the process, save people some money.

With warm lighting and pop music blasting through the store, the flagship Refash outlet at City Plaza resembles any other store in the mall selling clothes targeting young fashionable women looking for a good bargain. 


The flagship Refash store at City Plaza. (Photo: Winnie Goh) 

But there is one difference - everything for sale on the racks is second-hand, and going for a fraction of its original price. A beige knit sweater from Uniqlo costs S$10, while a black flare dress from New Look sells for S$12.

Refash founder Aloysius Sng hopes to provide a simple solution for what he described as “a real problem in the market”: That people do not wear a lot of items in their closet. He noted that a lot of these items also tend to be in almost mint condition and still on-trend.


Refash founder Aloysius Sng. (Photo: Winnie Goh) 

“With shortening trends and fast-fashion brands producing new designs faster than ever, that also means that consumers are consuming fast-fashion faster than ever,” he said. “We make it extremely simple for ladies to clean out their wardrobe, by just stuffing all their unwanted clothes in a bag, passing it to us, and we’ll do the rest.”

Clothes that reach Refash are sorted, tagged and either put on the racks at one of the company’s physical stores or listed on their website for sale, explained Mr Sng. The company takes a small service fee for each sale. “We accept mostly fast-fashion brands like H&M, Uniqlo, Topshop and Zara, and local brands like Love Bonito and MDS.”

“The clothes just have to be on-trend and in like-new condition,” he added.


Bags of clothes waiting to be sorted and tagged by Refash staff. (Photo: Winnie Goh)

Refash accepts about 80 per cent of the clothes it receives, he added. Clothes that are rejected upon sorting or are not sold after some time are either returned to the seller, donated to charity or exported overseas for sale.

Over the last nine months, Refash has processed more than 80,000 pieces of clothing and made about half a million dollars in sales revenue. And Mr Sng said there is a waiting list of more than 1,000 people looking to sign up with them.

He said these are encouraging signs that Singaporeans are becoming more open to the idea of buying and wearing second-hand clothes. “Just three weeks ago, we had a warehouse sale … and a stream of people queuing up to shop for second-hand clothes. It just goes to show that when second-hand is presented in a manner that hasn’t been done before, people are receptive to it.”

“We can’t say for sure that we’ve reduced textile waste by 10 or 20 per cent, but it’s a small step towards a longer term vision … to inspire a new generation of consumers to always think second-hand first,” he added.

The Trash Trail will be aired on Channel NewsAsia on Jan 31 at 8pm.