China Tosses 26 Million Tons of Clothing Per Year

There's no good system for dealing with it.

clothes and cans await recycling
Clothes await recycling at Dongxiaokou village, outside of Beijing.

Ryan Pyle / Getty Images

With a population of 1.4 billion and growing, China has a real problem on its hands when it comes to second-hand clothing. As reported by Bloomberg Green, China throws away 26 million tons of clothing every year, and less than 1% of that is recycled. 

Part of the problem is cultural. Because new clothes can be purchased so cheaply, many people are reluctant to buy used; Bloomberg explains that there is a stigma to wearing old or second-hand clothes. Jason Fang, CEO of used clothing collection company Baijingyu, said that only 15% of the clothes his company collects are redistributed to poor families in China:

"People want all their clothes donated to poor Chinese families, but it’s not very realistic anymore. A few years ago, if a jacket was 70% new, people would take it, but today I am too embarrassed to even show a jacket to a family unless it’s 90% new."

The non-charitable used clothing sector is highly regulated by the government, making it challenging to operate and expand. Cultural anthropologist Ma Boyang explained in an article for Sixth Tone that past scandals involving philanthropic organizations have made many Chinese skeptical about donating old clothes. They're leery of any company with money-making intentions; but as Boyang points out, some profits must be generated just to offset operating costs, which is what American charities do. 

He writes, "What China’s recycling companies must do is maintain transparency — namely, by candidly informing the public of the necessity of these initiatives as well as allowing themselves to be closely monitored."

Many used clothes are collected and exported overseas. Chinese clothing imports are now flooding African markets in particular, overtaking American and European imports. Bloomberg reports, "Ten years ago the U.K. supplied a quarter of the used clothing shipped to Kenya. Now China is the biggest supplier, accounting for about 30%, while the U.K.’s share has dropped to 17%." There is, however, still a preference for American clothes, so Chinese clothes are sometimes sent to the U.S. first, then shipped to Africa in order to get a better price.

With landfills overflowing, China also uses incineration as a way of dealing with the surplus, particularly when the quality of the clothing does not meet export standards, which is increasingly the case due to fast fashion. Bloomberg says, "Cut and shredded pieces of cloth are added to wet waste in trash-to-energy incinerators to make them more efficient." Global Recycling reports that these waste-to-energy plants are classified as renewable power generators and allow tax refunds; capacity has doubled between 2015 and 2020. 

Unfortunately incinerators are not as green as they seem. While the emissions may only be carbon dioxide and water, CO2 is not exactly harmless – at least, not in the quantities that we are currently producing it. And burning old clothes (or any old stuff, for that matter) acts as a disincentive to come up with better, more sustainable, and circular ways of doing things. It creates dependence on a fuel source we don't really want to have in the first place.

There's a real cultural problem at play here – not only in China (though it's more visible there because of the population size), but throughout the entire developed world. No amount of upcycling and redesigning, of chemical or mechanical recycling, of shipping around the globe to far-off places (where they still have to be discarded eventually) changes the fact that we buy too many clothes and we don't wear them long enough. This approach has to change.

China's enormous problem is also our own, here in North America, and it's only going to get worse as the global population increases. Stop and think about a garment's full life cycle the next time you shop. Is it built to last? Where will it end up? Choose wisely, choose natural fabrics, and rewear, rewear, rewear.