How to Recycle 26 Million Tons of Discarded Clothes China’s Next Problem

“Low-carbon, warm, love,” a green box reads. Zhao Xiao (ph), a Beijing resident, stuffs her unwanted old clothes into it, “It would be great if the poor need these, it would ease my guilt of throwing them away.” Such clothing collection bins are scattered throughout China’s big cities, but few clothes make it into the charity channel. Some are sold to developing countries, others are either burned or buried in landfills.

In a country that produces more than five billion T-shirts a year, it’s a shame to wear second-hand or used clothes. An ambitious middle class combined with an e-commerce boom has helped China overtake the United States as the world’s largest clothing market. But most of what Chinese people buy is “fast fashion” – cheap, short-lived clothing that is mass-produced. As a result, China discards 26 million tons of clothing every year, less than 1 percent of which is recycled.

The environmental cost of this waste is enormous. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the garment industry accounts for about 10 percent of global carbon emissions, more than the aviation and shipping industries combined. For every kilogram of clothing recycled, 3.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted less, saving 6,000 litres of water, 0.3 kilograms of fertiliser and 0.2 kilograms of pesticides.

In China, the problem is partly related to the fact that recycling clothes is not profitable. For health and safety reasons, it is forbidden to sell used clothes through non-charitable channels. Used clothing is considered unhygienic and even unlucky, a stigma reinforced by the Xincrown epidemic.

China has authorized government-approved groups to collect and sort donated clothing in good condition, but few companies do so. In China, where used clothes aren’t even popular in relatively poor areas, the time and effort it takes is more than worth it. If a jacket was 70% new a few years ago, people would still want it, but now I’m embarrassed to show it to people unless it’s 90% new,” said the head of a used-clothing recycling company in Hangzhou.

The UK-based Textile Recycling Association figures show that China’s second-hand clothing exports rose to 6.4 per cent of global exports in 2015 – less than 1 per cent in 2010, many of which went to Africa. 10 years ago, the UK supplied a quarter of the second-hand clothing shipped to Kenya, and now China is the largest supplier, accounting for about 30 per cent. But most of the clothes the Chinese throw away go into landfill, adding to the environmental challenge. Alan Wheeler, chief representative of the Bureau of International Recycling’s textiles division, says that clothing needs to be designed for durability and recycling, so that people can reuse it after wearing it. But the real solution is much simpler than that: buy less clothing.