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Can China Handle Its 20 Million Tonnes of Textile Waste?

China is the world’s largest consumer of fashion and a major production hub. How it tackles its mountain of annual waste will impact global brands’ ability to embrace a more circular supply chain.
Redress' installation of secondhand clothes | Source: Redress
Redress' installation of secondhand clothes. Redress. (Redress)

China’s meteoric rise to the top of the world’s fashion and luxury consumer market has been well documented, but the evolution of hundreds of millions of Chinese people into middle class consumers also comes with consequences — not least for the environment.

According to the most recent available estimates from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, China currently produces more than 20 million tonnes of fashion-related waste products each year, a combination of production waste and “post-consumer waste”, or old clothes its consumers no longer wear.

The good news is that China’s proportion of the former is getting smaller. The bad news is that the apparent shrinkage is partly due to a shift in garment and textile manufacturing away from China to other markets with lower labour costs. This means that overall waste might not actually be lessened, just China’s share of it, because the problem is likely to simply shift to other countries that feed global demand.

What’s arguably more worrying is that the proportion of China’s post-consumer waste is growing as the country’s appetite for fashion grows. According to Statista data, revenue in China’s apparel market will reach $321.28 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow annually by 8.24 percent through 2025. The volume of apparel consumed is also expected to continue growing over this period, with an expected 31.32 billion pieces sold annually by 2025.


China’s ability to confront this problem is complicated by a tangled web of challenges.

“There are many issues,” explained Kowen Tam, a manager at Yagi & Co, a company that has traditionally recycled manufacturing textile waste into garment products for companies including Adidas, H&M and Decathlon.

“There are legal issues; there are technical issues, there are consumer behaviour issues in China,” he said, adding that Chinese consumers “just really don’t want to buy second-hand clothes” all that much yet.

Indeed, the market’s strong consumer preference for newness outweighs the momentum of China’s nascent sustainability movement and challenges in the recycling process of most apparel products remain an obstacle.

China has the opportunity to be circular ahead of everybody else.

Yet some remain optimistic that the country can get a handle on its annual mountain of textile waste and that its next moves will make a huge difference in how much global fashion companies embrace circularity within their own supply chains.

Factors in China’s Favour

According to Edwin Keh, chief executive of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), China’s existing manufacturing base, much of it in need of repurposing following mass market production’s offshoring move, gives the country a distinct advantage.

“China has the opportunity to be circular ahead of everybody else,” Keh said.


“The challenge for the traditional western world is that they have no manufacturing capabilities left, so even if they recycle everything, they still have to work out how to process and manufacture that back into a useful product. China should not have that problem, [because] China already knows how to make a lot of stuff,” he explained.

Ma Yun, founder of Shanghai-based collection and recycling firm, Fei Mayi (the name translates to “flying ant” in English) points to huge strides in the amount of textile materials and used clothing coming into recycling channels like theirs since it was founded in 2014.

Whereas government statistics referenced by official news agency Xinhua in 2016 put the total amount of textile waste China reused or recycled at around 1 percent, with 99 percent ending up in landfill or incinerated, Ma now estimates that around 15 percent of the total is reused or recycled.

Donated clothes at a Fei Mayi warehouse. Fei Mayi
Donated clothes at a Fei Mayi warehouse. Fei Mayi. Donated clothes at a Fei Mayi warehouse. Fei Mayi

Figures from an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report released last year, “Outlook for a New Textile Economy in China”, estimated that China produced about 21 million tonnes of textile waste in 2018, of which about 5 percent was reused through donation and export, and about 17 percent was recycled as materials. The “comprehensively utilised volume” was 4.8 million tonnes.

“Before, just one out of one thousand, or several out of one thousand pieces of clothes entered the recycling channel,” Ma said, adding his prediction that within five years, that percentage will rise to between 30 and 40 percent.

Consumer awareness about recycling has increased significantly in cities like Shanghai, where an aggressive and mandatory garbage-sorting programme was implemented in 2019.

These days, Ma said, with similar programmes being rolled out across the country, it would be impossible for people not to be aware that recycling their old clothes, rather than throwing them in the garbage, is an option.

This being said, even though Ma says the cost of collection is one of the biggest challenges facing the profitability of his business and those like it, the hardest part of China’s textile waste equation comes next.


Mixed Regulatory Picture

As a planned economy led by a central authoritarian government, China has notable advantages when it wants to get big things done.

Yet, even as China has explicitly taken aim at promoting a circular economy and tackling textile waste by encouraging recycling in policies, including in the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans passed by the country’s top lawmakers, legislation lingering on the country’s books from 2009 makes it illegal to domestically sell items made from recycled fibres that “directly touch the skin”.

Kowen Tam says that this law stops global fashion companies from choosing recycled materials for core lines, because they can’t be sold in China.

As long as this law exists, it will definitely slow down the Chinese recycling industry.

“As long as this law exists, it will definitely slow down the Chinese recycling industry because it’s stopping all kinds of mechanical recycling, whether it’s up to standard or not,” he explained, adding that a new standard for recycled materials is currently making its way through China’s byzantine legal system.

Tam hopes a national standard can be implemented by the end of 2021, solidifying the legal status of recycled garments in the market, but even if that goes to plan, there are universal technical problems inherent in recycling textiles to contend with.

‘An Engineering Challenge’

Tam, whose company is exploring ways to apply its pre-consumer waste recycling technology to post-consumer waste, says that for every 100 tonnes of used garments it purchases, only 10 to 15 percent will be garments that are 100 percent cotton or polyester (which can be more easily reused and recycled for higher quality products).

The rest is comprised of blended fabrics which, with the recycling technology commercially available today, can in general only be “down-cycled” to make insulation and building materials, for example, which means “the value of doing this kind of recycling is low”, Tam says.

Currently, many of the remaining non-recycled garments are collected and exported by China (and other developed consumer markets like Japan, the US and South Korea) to the developing world in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.

“This is a way of exporting and postponing this waste issue because … 80 percent is [poly-cotton blends, such as] TC [tetoron cotton, which is 65 percent polyester and 35 percent cotton] or CVC [chief value cotton, 60 percent cotton and 40 percent polyester] and when we pass this to African countries it will forever live in African soil,” Tam said.

Though exporting used garments to Africa and Southeast Asia is the most profitable component of Ma Yun’s business, he also acknowledges that exporting the problem isn’t a long-term solution.

“Africa’s economy will also rise and … in the future, there will be no countries, even in Africa, that need these clothes,” he said.

Unless the global apparel industry reconsiders its use of blended fibres in the majority of garments — which at present seems highly unlikely given the implications on cost and material performance — the only hope is a technical solution that can separate these fibres and recycle them.

HKRITA’s hydrothermal separation and reprocessing system is one of the most developed examples of this kind of technology in the world, with an industrial scale system being built that will be able to recycle two tonnes per day, and the possibility of scaling that up to as much as 50 tonnes per day, according to its CEO’s estimates.

“In China, we are looking at needing 1,000 or 2,000 tonnes capacity [per day], so that’s an engineering challenge,” Keh said. “I think a lot of the fundamental work has been done, but the types of solutions fit for purpose in China will be at a different level.”

He remains hopeful that those solutions are on the horizon, but also that a new generation of Chinese consumers will be able to make a significant dent in the country’s textile waste problem by shifting their behaviour to make more sustainable choices and becoming more broadly accepting of reused and recycled fashion products.

“The problem will be if this generation consumes like their western counterparts. [If that happens] there’s not enough steel, cement or apparel in the world to satisfy their desires,” Keh warned.



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