SHANGHAI: At Shanghai-based recycling firm Flying Ant, the month before Chinese New Year is the busiest time of the year.
Staff at the company work double shifts during weekends, going door-to-door to collect used clothes rejected by Chinese families as part of their spring cleaning before the new year.
On average, the firm collects about 500 tonnes of unwanted garments per month from 60 Chinese cities. However, during the period before Chinese New Year, this amount can increase to up to 100 tonnes in just one day - and the volume of hand-me-downs has been increasing every year.
Fast fashion brands have made clothes cheaper and so people buy more and at a quicker pace, said Flying Ant's founder Ma Yun.
And the more consumers buy, the more they throw away. The China Association of Circular Economy, which carries out the country’s conservation and environmental protection policies, estimated that textile waste in China grew 280 per cent to 100 million tonnes between 2011 and 2015.
Flying Ant was started by 28-year-old Ma in 2014. During his final year at a university in Shanghai, Ma saw schoolmates leave behind heaps of used garments when they moved out of campus.
So he thought of doing something for the poor, and started a charity to donate these unwanted clothes to them - but this turned out to be harder than he originally thought.
“We thought it was just old clothes - just wash, de-contaminate and pack them off. But the process involved huge capital, and there’s also shipping costs,” said Ma. “Now most charities find it more cost-effective to ask for donations, buy new clothes and donate to the poor."
Ma also said the number of poor villages in need of clothes is also diminishing in China.
Thanks to the wide outreach of social media, each time an organisation sends out a call for donations, there will be an outpouring of contributions.
“Some of those villages get so many donations, excess clothes are dumped into the streets and bins," he said.
Most residential compounds in China have a recycling bin for families to drop off their unwanted garments. The common perception is that these clothes will be handed down as donations for the poor.
But in reality, because of the high costs of sanitising, packing and transporting used clothes, less than 10 per cent gets re-used in China.
A huge proportion is exported and sold overseas, mainly to East African countries, namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
In China, the business of collecting and re-selling used clothes to these countries has become quite lucrative.
Costs are low and returns are high. Profits can range between 800 yuan (US$128) and 1,200 yuan for each tonne of used garments, said the owner of a sorting factory based in Suzhou (who declined to be named).
According to the "China's used clothing online" website, a tonne of secondhand denim jeans can fetch between 800 yuan and 4,000 yuan.
Thin, chiffon ladies’ tops are especially popular and good quality ones can fetch up to 5,000 yuan per tonne. There is even a firm specialising in used bras, offering to pay 80 cents per piece.
China used to be a recipient of half of the world’s rubbish, including textile waste. That stopped this year, when it banned all imports of plastics and textile waste.
The country was the world’s fifth largest exporter of used garments by 2015, accounting for 5.6 per cent of the world’s total shipments - up from 0.1 per cent in 2011 - according to the United Kingdom's Textile Recycling Association.
Data from the United Nations showed that with a combined 36.1 per cent of the global share, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany were the top three used clothes exporters in 2015.
“When you do exporting, some of (this is) actually bought by consumers in a third country. But some of ... the poor quality ones, the vendors will just discard them into landfills,” said Sissi Chao of ReMAKEHub, a Shanghai-based start-up that helps people retain their used fabrics by turning them into designer accessories.
“All those unwanted clothes, they’re discarded (into) the ground, they’re releasing all the chemicals and dyes into the soil. It’ll also affect the humans and animals.”
The 28-year-old entrepreneur is part of a growing number of environmentally conscious Chinese millennials trying to find creative viable solutions to the country’s growing waste problem.
She has firsthand knowledge of just how damaging the fast fashion industry is to the environment, because her family is actually in the business.
“I went to check out a (textile) supplier once and I was shocked to find workers covered in blue in the factory. They looked like smurfs," she said, referring to the blue, human-like fictional cartoon characters created by Belgian animator Peyo.
“And the smell was just horrible,” she added. “I thought at that time: Something is wrong here.”
But Chao declined to provide more details of her family’s company because she said she had no permission to represent them or speak on their behalf.
What she’s hoping to do now with her business is to extend the life of a garment before it gets thrown away.
“People in China won’t buy secondhand clothes from other people because they think it's dirty. But if you convert something that’s already theirs into something new, they will buy that.”
But China will need to find more alternative solutions for its textile waste quickly, as the African countries who have been importing them are looking to ban used textile shipments in 2019.
The move is part of efforts to revive the textile manufacturing sector in their own countries.
Organisations like Flying Ant also send used garments to recycling factories where fabrics are broken down and then processed into a form of low-quality cotton, which can be re-used to make things like eco-friendly bags, the interior of some car seats, or sound insulation.
But the technology to do this is still expensive.
“The costs of getting recycled materials is not lower than getting direct raw materials," said Ma of Flying Ant.
“(Textile waste) has become a serious social problem in recent years. I believe the government will find ways to solve it. So many clothes get dumped - you can’t get rid of them, you can’t donate them, do we really have to incinerate or throw them into landfills?”
Meanwhile, at the sorting factory in Suzhou, workers sieve through 200 tonnes of clothes per month - equivalent to about 1.2 million pieces.
The factory owner said the amount of clothes coming in has been increasing so much that she is planning to expand to 10 conveyor sorting belts from her current two.