In Chinese cities will see road signs that read in ‘Low-carbon, warmth, love’ for people to give away their unwanted clothes on a big green metal bin, into which big cities like stuff there unwanted, old clothes for charity and donation.
In the country that makes more than 5 billion T-shirts a year, there is a dishonor to trying old or second-hand clothes and millions of tons of garments go to waste every day. Leading to a mammoth 26 million tons of clothing waste every year, less than 1% of which is reused or recycled, according to state news agency Xinhua.
China’s growing middle class booming in e-commerce has turned China into the world’s biggest fashion market, overtaking the U.S. last year. Greater China accounts for a fifth of Japanese retail giant Uniqlo’s global revenue and the company’s sales in the region rose almost 27% in the 2017-2018 fiscal year to more than $4 billion. Most of China’s purchases are fast fashion – mass-produced, cheap, short-lived garments.
The ecological cost of this waste is enormous. The fashion industry accounts for around 10% of global carbon emissions, more than is produced by all flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
By one estimate, reusing 1 kilogram of clothing saves 3.6 kg of carbon dioxide, 6,000 liters of water, 0.3 kg of chemical fertilizers and 0.2 kg of insecticides, compared with making garments from virgin resources.
Portion of the problem in China is that recycling clothing is unprofitable by law. Non-charitable sales of used apparel are banned for health and safety reasons. In China, used clothes are considered unhygienic, even unlucky. And Covid-19 has reinforced that bias.
To mitigate this China authorizes government-approved organizations to collect and sort donated clothes that are in ‘excellent condition,’ Few do.
The time and effort aren’t worth it in a nation where used clothes are unpopular even in relatively poor regions. “Sometimes too many just pile up” at collecting sites, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs says. “It’s difficult to deal with.”
So high-quality garments that are collected are usually sold overseas. China’s exports of used clothing rose to 6.4% of the world total in 2015, from less than 1% in 2010, according to the latest data from the U.K.-based Textile Recycling Association.
Many go to Africa. Ten years ago, the U.K. supplied a quarter of the used clothing shipped to Kenya. Now China is the biggest supplier, accounting for about 30%, while the U.K.’s share has dropped to 17%.
Some Chinese exporters rely on the collection bins in residential neighborhoods, but many now use e-commerce sites like Alipay to solicit donations.
About 70% of the clothes collected by Hangzhou-based Baijingyu, or White Whales, are sold in overseas second-hand clothing markets, while 15% are down-cycled for use in construction, agriculture, or gardening, or sent to waste-to-energy incinerators, said Chief Executive Officer Jason Fang.
With its main markets in Southeast Asia and Africa, most of its exports are summer apparel. Only about 15% of donations are given to poor regions in China.
But the massive majority of China’s discarded apparel goes straight into the trash, exacerbating one of the country’s major environmental headaches.
Most of the nation’s 654 giant landfills filled up ahead of schedule. The nation’s biggest dump in Jiangcungou, Shaanxi province, is the size of 100 football fields but filled up 25 years earlier than designed after receiving almost four times the amount of daily waste predicted. As a result, China dumped more than 200 million cubic meters of waste into its coastal waters in 2018, according to the environmental ministry.
That’s promoted perhaps the fastest-growing solution for China’s unwanted garment problem: burn them. Cut and shredded pieces of cloth are added to wet waste in trash-to-energy incinerators to make them more efficient.
China considers such plants a form of renewable power, despite the emissions they produce and has tried to double their capacity in the past five years.