City Weekend

All dressed up and nowhere to go … except to landfills: fast consumer fashion habits add to Hong Kong’s textile waste

  • Discarded garments from changing consumer patterns on the rise as city has to explore ways to process its own material
  • Durable garment quality contributing to the challenge of breaking down such products for recycling
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 1:20pm

Hong Kong shoppers are poised to splash out on apparel this holiday season, with more than HK$5 billion in sales rung up last December at boutiques around town. As new clothes pour into city wardrobes, old pieces are inevitably tossed out.

These discarded garments become part of more than 300 tonnes of textile waste that are dumped in the city’s landfills daily.

“In Hong Kong we’re famous for our consumption levels and shopping,” says Anneleise Smillie, executive director of Redress, a Hong Kong-based NGO working to reduce textile waste.

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Such habits contribute to the city’s growing levels of waste, Smillie says, citing a 2017 independent survey of some 1,000 Hong Kong residents that found four in 10 people have thrown clothing away after only wearing it once.

Figuring out what to do with all this waste has become more complicated this year, with mainland China halting imports of discarded clothes from the city in January, part of a broader ban on foreign waste brought in for processing.

While most is processed locally, the mainland had been a key export destination for textile recyclables that Hong Kong ships out.

Faced with the constraints, Hong Kong is working to reclaim more discarded clothes and textiles to reuse them locally. In 2016, the city recycled some 4,200 tonnes of textile waste, equivalent to a two-week build-up of such material in landfills. This included clothing recovered in waste sorting and from donation bins stationed across the city.

But not all clothing, dumped or donated, is fit to be worn again.

While shifts in consumption trends and design are crucial to manage this waste, experts say, local innovation in recycling technology could change how the city copes with the continually rising mounds of discarded clothes.

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What’s causing the problem?

Rising levels of textile waste are the product of easy online shopping and fast fashion, where brands are not producing new styles seasonally, but on a weekly basis.

“They are just churning out more each week,” Redress’s Smillie says.

And consumers are buying: people own 60 per cent more clothes in 2014 than in 2000, according to a McKinsey & Company global report.

Meanwhile, items are increasingly made from materials that do not break down naturally, according to Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA).

“Fashion cycles are getting faster and faster, but the materials used are more robust and have a very long shelf life,” Keh says. This means more durable clothes that are worn for a shorter amount of time are ending up in landfills.

More awareness and education is needed to turn back the clock on consumer habits, according to Harry Wong, programme officer at Friends of the Earth Hong Kong, one of the city’s designated clothing donation handlers.

“The government should spend more effort on educating the public on sustainable consumption,” Wong says.

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What happens to donated clothes in Hong Kong?

There are nearly 200 clothing donation bins around the city, part of a scheme set up in 2006 to stamp out “clothing cages” on city streets where used clothes were illegally collected, often for resale. More recently, retailers like H&M and Zara have installed donation bins in their shops.

The clothes in municipal donation bins are handled by NGOs such as Friends of the Earth, which sanitise the clothes and donate them to local charities and hospitals or resell the items to fund their work.

Clothes that cannot be used in Hong Kong are shipped internationally, for example to Southeast Asia. The bulk of them are used locally.

While such practices are crucial to reducing waste, they are not without challenges.

“There’s significant manpower and logistics associated with managing our waste, whether it’s textile or plastic,” says Smillie from Redress, which relies on volunteers to sort clothes they receive as Zara’s local partner handling in-store donations.

There’s significant manpower and logistics associated with managing our waste, whether it’s textile or plastic
Anneleise Smillie, Redress

She adds that the key issue would be determining the parties that would bear costs – from individuals to the government and corporations – as clothing reuse systems expand to cut waste.

What happens to trashed clothes?

Lots of clothes never get a second chance in Hong Kong and as much as half of what is donated in local bins is not fit to be worn again, instead ending up in the trash. The city’s landfills are only 3 per cent textile waste, but 343 tonnes are dumped daily, according to 2016 statistics from the Environmental Protection Department.

Unlike cotton and wool, which degrade in less than a year, synthetic fibres such as polyester only begin to break down after several months in landfills and some polyesters can last 200 years. Apart from inflating landfills, synthetic materials also release the greenhouse gas methane as they break down over time.

The city is working to reduce the amount of textile waste in landfills. A HK$1 billion Recycling Fund was established in 2015 to promote the recovery of recyclable goods, including textiles, in part through more training for waste management workers.

Is recycling clothes an option?

Globally only around 13 per cent of clothes are recycled, with less than 1 per cent converted into materials that can be used to make new clothes. Part of the reason for this are the technical challenges of breaking down fabric blends that compose modern fashion.

Whereas you can separate your trash, aluminium and bottles from non-recyclables, you can’t separate blended material
Edwin Keh, HKRITA

“Whereas you can separate your trash, aluminium and bottles from non-recyclables, you can’t separate blended material, because a lot of the time we don’t even know how it’s put together,” HKRITA’s Keh says.

But an “upcycling” textile spinning plant opened by manufacturer Novetex in Tai Po this September is implementing a solution to the problem. Using technology developed by HKRITA, tanks in the factory use heat and water to break down complex fabrics into fibres. These are then spun into yarn that can be exported to make new clothes.

“We have a theoretical infinitive loop to recycle and reuse this material,” Keh says. “It goes in and comes out basically in the same form.”

The Novetex plant, the first new textile plant to open in Hong Kong in over 50 years, can produce 100kg of such cutting-edge “hydrothermal” recycled materials daily. Starting next year, three additional mechanical “upcycling” assembly lines will produce 2 to 3 tonnes of fibre from post-consumer textiles per day. One line is already operational.

While the new technology is exciting, it represents a small contribution to a big problem, Keh says.

“The genie is out of the bottle – we are still consuming the way we are consuming, so we have to deal with all the material that is out in the marketplace,” he says.