Updated: Jan 4
Gen.T editor Lee Williamson talks to Sissi Chao, Gen.T honouree and the founder of REmakeHub, a social enterprise that addresses textile waste through high-tech recycled materials and creative upcycling.
REmakeHub focuses on harnessing the power of upcycling: creating a new product or material from waste that can then be sold at a higher value. Notably, Chao has taken coffee grounds, which are often just thrown out or used as fertiliser for plants, and turned the waste into watches that sell for upwards of HK$1,000, rather than the few dollars it would be worth as fertiliser.
The most dramatic way to reduce waste is for industries to shift from using virgin material to renewables, explained Chao, highlighting the importance of changing people’s perception of waste. The current technology available also allows for some items to be recycled multiple times and others infinitely, “So for us, waste is a misplaced resource—it’s like gold.”
“Every year we throw 640,000 tonnes of fishing nets into the ocean—equivalent to the weight of 6,000 blue whales,” said Chao. “Some individual nets can weigh 200-300 tonnes, so just imagine the implications of a single net dropping into the ocean on marine life.”
Chao wants to upcycle fishing nets into headphones, of which 340 million pairs are sold each year. “Imagine if we could replace just 1 percent of that; the issue of discarded fishing nets would be solved.”
She hopes to use the R.A.W. Prize grant to build an entire supply chain. “I want to build an income system for the local fishermen, and employ older women to collect the fishing nets to prevent further pollution, then local NGOs transport it to our factory, where we can turn it into products like sunglasses and headphones.”
Chao wants to educate fishermen on the ramifications of disposing of the fishing nets in the ocean, while also providing them with income and a viable, environmentally friendly route to recycling them if they bring them back to the harbour.
THE FASHION INDUSTRY IS THE WORLD’S SECOND LARGEST POLLUTER
Chao pointed out that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter, after oil, because producing fabrics uses so much energy and so many raw materials. “Annually we produce 100 billion pieces of clothing for a population of 7 billion,” she said, “and 78 percent of them end up in landfills or we burn them".
“I didn’t know what to do with all the clothes I bought before. I used to just throw them away, but now we have more solutions like recycling, rentals and swapping that can maximise the use of each piece of clothing.”
During her R.A.W. Prize presentation, Chao said that “Earth is 4.6 billion years old and humankind has been around for a maximum of 120,000 years, so if you had to take the Earth’s timeline and translate it into a 24 hour day, humans have been around for about three seconds.”
Asked afterwards if she was optimistic about the fourth second, she smiled and answered with a resounding yes. “I truly believe that through the technology we have available, nothing is impossible. The difference between humans and animals is that they are living in the present, but we are living in a time that we can imagine—and we can build things through that imagination.”
She emphasised the importance of being aware of the impact you have on the Earth every day, simply by being present. “Ask yourself: who do you want to be? What do you want to create? What do you want to contribute to society? For me, it’s to inspire more people to become planet guardians too.”
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