1992 / 10月
Hsieh Shu-fen /photos courtesy of Huang Li-li /tr. by Christopher Hughes
With civic organizations strongly opposing overpackaging, Taipei is going through an "environmentalist autumn."
There has been encouragement for less wrapping on gifts and mooncakes; but what about the clothes piled high in the seasonal sales? Are "people" being packaged too much? When the season has passed, what will happen to the packages of clothing being carried by the bargain hunters?
According to statistics from the Directorate General of Budget Accounting and Statistics of the Executive Yuan, 4.6 percent of the money spent by the people of Taiwan goes on clothing, shoes and accessories, higher than the 3 percent spent on household utensils and equipment. People obviously take more interest in tarting up their own appearances.
On average, the people of the Taiwan area every year throw away eleven kilos of old clothes each, making a total of more than 20,000 metric tons and about three-tenths of woven textile refuse. If all of this was buried, it would need at least 50,000 ping of land.
Not only is this is a lot of cloth, but some chemical ingredients, plastics and styrofoam take centuries to decompose. These materials are also highly combustible and are often the cause of fires at rubbish dumps.
On the whole, the length of life of an item of clothing can be anything from four or five years to ten or twenty. With technological developments in the textile industry, ingredients are constantly being improved, so that it is harder and harder to wear clothes out. Surplus old clothes are becoming more and more of a problem for housewives.
Recycling clothes from home: From about three or four years ago, posters and leaflets have been put on the doors of houses and the main entrances to high-rise blocks telling people the dates of collections of old clothes for recycling.
Housewives are delighted with this and open up their wardrobes for a big clean out. They sort out their unseasonal clothes, tie them in bundles and put them outside their doors at the appointed time for "recycling."
So where do all these clothes piled high on the trucks go to? The collections are always said to be for the purpose of extending use and alleviating the burden on the environment. Housewives wanting to do a good deed, faced by a number of organizations with a variety of aims and attitudes, believe they are making a donation to an orphanage or old people's home or some such beneficial organization.
"In fact, in recent years even orphanages have had a surplus of clothes," says a volunteer at the Tachikai Charity Center. This is because there are just so many old clothes, and when they are added to the regular donations given by Taiwan's advanced textiles industry, charity organizations have difficulties digesting them.
Because of this, some organizations for recycling old clothes have copied the Japanese and American method by starting to sort them for donation to less economically developed areas or places where there is a comparative lack of resources.
From U.S. Aid to R.O.C. Aid: Take the United States as an example: From 1957, when environmental agencies began to promote the separation of garbage, cloth items were the first kind of resource to be recycled and distributed to less developed parts of the world after being collected together. Thirty-five years ago, in the early days following Taiwan's retrocession, consumer goods industries had still not been established here and Taiwan benefited from this. Today the United States exports around 400,000 tons of old clothes annually. Japan has also begun to recycle old clothes due to the risks posed to its environment by waste from its textiles industry.
Among the present ten or more organizations recycling old clothes, the Fochi Charity Foundation began comparatively early and is a standard sized organization. Architect Hung Chin-chin is the organizer and once benefited from clothes donations from the United States in his childhood.
"I never wore new clothes before I was ten, only the secondhand clothes given out by the village church," he says. Five years ago, when he was living in Taipei's Minsheng Community and was out walking with his wife, he would often see bundles of old clothes put out at the refuse collection points at the ends of streets. In this high-income residential area, most of these discarded clothes were not in fact old. Having worked and travelled in undeveloped countries and seen many areas where people were too poor to buy enough clothes to cover themselves, he established a registered charitable foundation and began recycling old clothes.
Joining the garbage recyclers: The foundation drew a quick response with a flood of old clothes coming in. Sometimes there would be more than ten tons in a day. In a few months an underground room had been filled. The volume has still not abated today, with an average of 8,000 to 10,000 tons of clothes coming in each year.
In a warehouse in Taoyuan's Nankan, a long conveyer belt piles old clothing onto a sorting platform two stories high, where ten dexterous workers sort them into categories. As each truck load is sorted, the clothes are machine-packed into small bundles on which are stuck labels showing the ROC flag, then put into freight containers to begin their journeys overseas.
Passing through foreign relations organizations, international charities and overseas Chinese contacts, some of these packages arrive in poor areas of the Philippines; others arrive in the Ethiopian refugee camps of Africa; still others end up being worn by refugee children from Indochina in northern Thailand. When there were disastrous floods in eastern China last year, the International Red Cross applied to the Fochi Foundation for two containers of clothes to help the victims of the disaster get through the winter.
The Fochi Foundation is copying the methods used by the United States and Japan and laying down a long-term fixed channel for recycling. Apart from irregular holdings of recycling activities, they have also established collection stations in Kaohsiung, Tainan, Hsinchu and other areas. This year in Taipei they also began using a truck to collect old clothes at fixed places.
Rags and overalls: The foundation's general manager, Chu Feng-chu, says that about two-tenths of recycled clothes are wasted because they are too soiled to be used. This waste can be milled and turned into cotton or cloth again and used as stuffing for sofas and chairs or for carpets. But it is very expensive to import a milling machine and the foundation still does not have this kind of equipment, so in the end they can only send such waste to be buried at a garbage dump, which is a setback for recycling.
"The space for reusing old clothes is in fact very big," points out Shih Shuo-jen, deputy general manager of the Taiwan Province Garbage Disposal Cooperation Society. They can be cut up and sold as rags to factories for the cleaning of machines, or supplied as overalls for workers in dirty industries and enterprises. This enables some salvage companies and civic organizations to make business their aim, using the names of charities so they can get the clothes, which makes it difficult for people to tell the difference.
Apart from this, rags used for cleaning machines, and overalls, create a lot of heavily polluted waste which is even harder to manage when it gets to the garbage dump.
From the position of the environmental authorities, the problem of environmental protection is extremely complicated, and of course civic organizations are welcome to get involved in recycling clothes. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, any method that is used for recycling is still not as good as starting to reduce the volume.
Don't go mad at the sales: The rate at which we get rid of our clothes is too high," says the writer Han Han, who has for a long time been paying attention to environmental problems. Many people's wardrobes are getting bigger and bigger, but when they go out they still cry they are lacking in some item or another.
In her view, reasonable consumption and longer life for clothes are the important principles for reducing volumes. Apart from not going mad in the sales, understanding how to preserve and match clothes means that all her items can be worn for at least seven or eight years. She even swaps with her two daughters and has saved a lot of money for when her daughter first goes out into society.
As for her way of matching clothes, "Open the wardrobe and the colors of the clothes and their styles all match and complement each other." Having once paid study how to dress, she says that in her experience "the more unique and and impressive are the clothes, the less opportunities there are to go out in them, and the possibility of them being left on the top shelf and forgotten is also greater."
Only after three generations of wealth can you understand how to wear clothes and eat, although you still have to study to understand the philosophy of how to select and match. But valuing material things and using them to the full has always been part of Chinese tradition. Going back to the experience of material shortages, it is not difficult in fact to discover ways to cut down on the volumes of what we use in everyday life.
Exchange for use and prolonging life: Such is the case with the appearance of secondhand clothes shops in recent years, which are of benefit to both buyers and sellers. They sell clothes that have been worn once or twice but are still as good as new, some of them having famous brand names, but with a price that is a small fraction of the original. For office workers, this is a real economic benefit. Manager Cheng Yuan-chen says that her customers are mainly office workers who need a lot of clothes and that what she supplies satisfies both sides.
The secondhand clothes business is a kind of mutual exchange. With environmentalism being all the rage today, some mothers who work in offices fix times to make exchanges with their colleagues, especially of children's clothes.
The throw-away rate for school children is high and the price of uniforms insisted on by schools is not low, so every two or three years they need to have new ones, accounting for a large part of the number of old clothes. There often take place exchanges of uniforms between members of the Homemakers' Union. They thus kill two birds with one stone by avoiding producing an environmental problem as well as saving some of the housekeeping money.
"Abroad there are also many flea markets, old clothes centers and car-boot sales, where you can buy cheap and not bad quality clothes," says Homemakers' Union member Lu Shu-fang, who frequented such places while she was living and travelling overseas so as to cut down on living expenses. Her grandmother can also make old clothes into garments for dolls and other items.
Apart from prolonging use, careful selection of the material and colors of clothes can also lessen the burden on the environment.
Natural materials such as cotton and hemp decompose much more easily than synthetic fibres. Natural colors and medium colors also produce less pollution in the process of dyeing. As for those manufacturers who want to appeal to environmentalism and promote a "green consumerism," if all they do is paint a few green animals and plants on the clothes, the consumer should be clear about whether their objective is "green" or "consumer."
Respect nature and materials--use things to the full: On fine Sunday mornings in Taiwan 30 years ago, mothers would go off to church with their kids to happily collect some packets of flour, milk powder or old clothes.
In those times, children in the countryside only wore clothes donated by the American people and even the flour and milk-powder sacks would be made into vests and short trousers. The little chap with "U. S.-R.O.C. Cooperation--20kg" emblazoned on his trousers is still the subject of jokes.
Today in faraway countries little children have begun to wear uniforms from the R.O.C. with "XX Junior School Third Year Chang Chuan-fu" on them.
The age of encouraging mass consumption has finally passed. The move from "U.S. Aid" to "R.O.C. Aid," has given a feeling of satisfaction at having gone from a position of receiving charity to one of wealth and being able to make donations, but recovering the respect for nature and material things held by the Chinese people and the traditional sentiment of using things to their full, should also be the significance of the recycling of old clothes.
Recycling old clothes is becoming the trend. Containers are placed on street corners at fixed places to make collections.
Old clothes are such a hassle! But do they cease to be a problem once given away?
What look like old rags can in fact be very useful.
Sorted, wrapped and marked with an R.O.C. flag they are sent overseas to be worn by the needy in other countries.
The rise of "secondhand" famous brandname clothes shops has provided natty dressers with a channel for exchange.