Cut back on the tissue: Hong Kong trio hopes handkerchiefs made from leftover factory fabric can curb wastage

About 360 tonnes – the weight of 13 double-decker buses – of tissue paper are discarded in the city every day

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2016, 4:27pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2016, 11:44pm

A Hong Kong trio is hoping to wipe away two waste problems in one go – with the handkerchief.

In order to reduce the amount of tissue paper Hongkongers use, the Chief Project sources leftover fabric from textiles factories to produce handkerchiefs.

“You use tissue paper to wipe your sweat, wipe your mouth, [and also] wipe your phone screen ... we use so much every day without even realising it,” founder Howard Chow Wing-ho said. “With handkerchiefs, we can replace about 60 to 70 per cent of tissue usage every day.”

On average, about 360 tonnes of tissue paper end up in landfills every day, according to Environmental Protection Department undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai. That’s the weight of 13 double-decker buses.

Paper, including tissues and paper towels, was one of the top three kinds of municipal solid waste in Hong Kong after food and plastics in 2014, official statistics showed.

Chow, with two other founders, Agnes Pang Siu-yin and David Law Ho-yun, said the trio wanted the product to be “100 per cent sustainable from start to finish”.

The business, which launched in April, has produced over 500 handkerchiefs by using leftover fabric from mainland factories.

Pang, who used to work in the textiles industry, said lots of fabric end up being discarded along the manufacturing line before the finished products were sent to fashion houses all over the world.

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That is the second waste problem that the team hoped to tackle.

“For example, if a buyer wants to order fabric to produce 10 sample shirts, they will need around 23 yards. But so much more has to be produced – around 100 yards – before they can get the most stable quality,” Pang said.

The rest is usually sent to landfills or shipped to other developing countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Since suppliers have little to no use for the extra fabric, they charge the Chief Project only two to three per cent of market price.

Textile waste makes up roughly only 3 per cent of all municipal solid waste in Hong Kong, but only a small amount is actually recovered for recycling, according to government data.

To minimise their environmental impact, the handkerchiefs are made from 100 per cent cotton, which is biodegradable.

The founders also insist on manufacturing locally, regardless of whether this is cost-effective.

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“We didn’t want to mass order them in mainland China, although it would be quite cheap to do so,” Chow said.

“We want it to be a sustainable production that contributes to our local economy.”

Their handkerchiefs are made by a group of seamstresses who belong to the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association.

About five seamstresses work regularly every day at a centre in Kwun Tong, and the association can draw upon at least 20 others in the community for bigger orders.

Huang Fengteng, one of the seamstresses, used to work on a production line of a China garment factory. She said the work she does now gives her “great satisfaction” and allows her the flexibility to take care of her children and earn a little on the side.

She said: “When I first came to Hong Kong, I didn’t have a job and I didn’t know anyone. Now I feel like I can put my skills to use.”

In an hour, most seamstresses can make around three handkerchiefs.

The company said the slower pace compared to mass production is one of the challenges they have to work with, streamlining production as they gear up for Christmas sales at city bazaars and online.

“If you mass produce them, machines can maybe cut 10,000 square patterns in a minute. But here, they’re all cut by hand, piece by piece,” Agnes Pang said. “But they never fail to deliver on time,” she said, laughing.