‘We turn waste into something golden’: the creatives transforming rags to riches

Rich nations’ unwanted clothes often end up in landfills, polluting the global south. But entrepreneurs in Ghana, Pakistan and Chile are turning rubbish into rugs, shoes and toys


Every second, the equivalent of a lorry full of clothes ends up on a landfill site somewhere around the world. People are buying, and casting off, more clothes than ever. On average each consumer buys 60% more clothing than 15 years ago and 92m tons of textile waste are created annually.

Production and consumption are on the rise, with severe environmental and social implications. Only 12% of the material used for clothing is recycled. A popular way to dispose of clothes is to give them to charity shops.

But many of these donations end up in countries in the global south, where there is big trade in secondhand clothing. The latest UN figures say the UK is the third-largest used-clothing exporter after the US and China. The top two destinations were Ghana and Pakistan, while the largest growing importer was Chile. These countries are becoming overwhelmed with clothing in poor condition that cannot be resold, as well as their own waste. Faced with this crisis, a growing number of entrepreneurs and designers collect textiles destined for landfill – and recycle them into new garments and home furnishings.

Kwabena Obiri Yeboah KoliKoWear, Ghana

“We have collected more than 2,000kg of textile waste and made more than 5,000 pairs of shoes out of it since we began in 2017. “My initial idea was to help youth unemployment in Takoradi, in western Ghana, and create something with cheap resources we could find locally. My co-founder and I have backgrounds in business, and his friend was an unemployed shoemaker. It started from there.

“We go to the secondhand market in Takoradi to collect, and sometimes buy discarded textiles and bring them into a workshop owned by my uncle. We use car tires and conveyor belts that have been thrown out – or we buy – for the soles. We take jeans that people don’t want and give them a new life as a pair of shoes.

“We saw there was a lot of textile waste – the landfill and beaches are a mess. It’s cheap or free to come by, so why not take advantage and build a business model with it? We took the cheapest resource and turned it into something golden.

“In the process, we became more aware of sustainability and the need to reduce the negative impact of the waste on the environment. “Three former employees have started their own businesses using textile waste. We encourage that – we cannot be the only people solving this problem. We also run apprenticeships.

“I love looking back at people we have worked with who have been successful. They worked in the informal sector with no vision with regards to sustainability. Now they know of the need to reduce the waste around us, and have an income that puts food on their tables.”

Ume Kulsum Hussain, East Rugs, Pakistan

“I used to visit my father’s textiles factory after school and saw the thousands of tonnes of waste produced. Pakistan is a textiles hub – I began to imagine the waste coming from hundreds of factories. It was concerning and I felt a responsibility to do something about it.

“I went to university to study textile design and came up with the idea of making rugs from waste. My project was well received at a textile fair last year in Frankfurt – I got orders for more rugs, so I started a company. I also sell rugs through Instagram.

“I collect waste from factories and have a team of five women who sort through it, cut it up and make it into yarn. Then they start weaving rugs on handlooms. In one day, we can make two to three rugs. One rug uses just under 1kg of waste, and so far, we’ve made more than 100 rugs. “When I was doing my thesis, I found out that a lot of secondhand clothes are imported to Pakistan. My country already has its own waste.

“When the leftovers go to landfill, they are burned. Many landfills are near water. Some day there will be a lot of air and water pollution. “Many factory owners I know utilize their waste by selling it on to be made into yarn, for example, but there is still some that ends up in landfill. “There are vendors at the secondhand clothing markets who also work on recycled material. “People are slowly realizing that the amount of textile waste is a problem.”

Yayra Agbofah, The Revival, Ghana

“I was walking through Kantamanto market, a secondhand clothes market in Accra, in 2017, when I saw some sportswear with cigarette burns on the floor. I saw more and more clothes on the floor and felt frustrated. “I looked into why there was so much waste and visited two landfills. I was shocked at the amount of clothes there and knew I needed to do something about it. A year later, I founded The Revival with Kwamena Boison.

“I pay people to collect clothes destined to be thrown away from Kantamanto. On average, I have about three tons of waste – thousands of pieces of clothing – in my studio at any one time. My team and I create about 50 garments each week. We patch up T-shirts, and screen print and dye them; we upcycle trench coats and leather jackets.

“We’ve used pairs of jeans to make uniforms for people working on pineapple farms. We also use waste denim to create tote bags, which are on sale at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. So far we have produced more than 700 bags.

“We organize workshops where we invite tailors from Kantamanto and designer friends and pay them to upcycle the waste. I mentor people who have started their own business creating products out of waste. We offer courses on upcycling and the circular economy.

“This problem is a result of the capitalist system we live in. I’d like to see clothing leaving the global north go through some kind of quality check – we don’t need warm clothes here in Ghana, for example. “The government of Ghana should not allow clothes we can’t use into the country.”

Rosario Hevia, Ecocitex, Chile

“When I had my second child, I started to notice just how many children’s garments go to waste. I developed a scheme where people could buy or exchange kids’ clothes or donate those they didn’t want. We started receiving a lot of clothes in bad condition. “I asked the environment ministry what the options were for textile waste and found out it is burned or goes to landfill.

“This is terrible for the environment, so I started looking for solutions. By the end of 2019, I heard of an old yarn factory up for sale. What if we could make yarn from waste clothing? After much experimenting, we worked out how to sort the clothing, cut and shred it, and make it into yarn. “Waste is everywhere. In August 2020 I heard about the clothes dump in the Atacama Desert that can be seen from space. I’m so ashamed of what we have become as people, governments and companies.

Discarded fast-fashion waste washed up on the coast of Jamestown in Accra, Ghana.We have a secondhand store for clothes we receive in good condition. We upcycle clothing in bad condition to make products such as bags, children’s toys and pencil cases; or we convert it into yarn. The clothes are cut and separated by colour by a team of women who have been in prison. “We sell the yarn and have a catalogue of products including mats, blankets, cushions and hats. Any remaining waste is used as stuffing for pillows or boxing punchbags.

“In June our factory burned down. We lost about $500,000 (£400,000) worth of machines, inventory and investments. We’re crowdfunding at the moment, and we’ll have a solution soon.”

The Guardian

Posted by on Aug 28 2023. Filed under top stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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