China’s Next Problem Is Recycling 26 Million Tons of Discarded Clothes

“Low-carbon, warmth, love,” reads the sign on a large green metal bin, into which Beijing resident Zhao Xiao stuffs her unwanted, old clothes. “If some poor Chinese person really needs them, that would be great and would make me feel less guilty about throwing them away,” said the 35-year-old resident of Dongcheng District.

Zhao is right to worry about what happens to her charitable donation. There are clothing collection bins dotted all around China’s major cities, but few of the garments go to charity. Some are sold to developing countries, others are either burned or buried in landfills.

In a country that makes more than 5 billion T-shirts a year, there is a stigma to wearing old or second-hand clothes and millions of tons of garments are discarded every day. An aspirational middle class, combined with a boom 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 result: China throws away 26 million tons of clothes every year, less than 1% of which is reused or recycled, according to state news agency Xinhua.

The environmental cost of this waste is huge. 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.

Part 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, [ … ]

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