MORE than eight million tonnes of single-use plastic waste comprising plastic bottles, bags, and packaging are dumped into the ocean every year while millions more pollute the land.
As countries around the world are struggling to better handle plastic waste, Taiwan’s Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation has been turning plastic bottles into garments and blankets – a seemingly win-win solution for both the environment and the people.
For years, the foundation, known globally for its charity and relief work during natural disasters, has been carrying a recycling programme based on the 3R principle – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
In 1990, during a talk in Taichung, founder Master Cheng Yen urged the audience to help keep the city clean and do recycling to protect the Earth.
In 1966, when she was a 29-year-old nun, Cheng Yen founded Tzu Chi to do relief work and reach out to the needy.
Even an insular country such as Taiwan throws away millions of single-use plastic bottles every day but given the overwhelming availability of these bottles, it’s possible to mass-produce and turn them into polyester fibres for making items like clothes and blankets.
In 2006, Da Ai Technology Co, a non-profit company, funded by the Tzu Chi Foundation, gathered plastic bottles from recycling centres and processed them into textiles.
According to Bryant Hwong, a recycling volunteer in Miri, the concept of producing garments from plastics bottles is now practised only in Taiwan where there are more than enough of such bottles for the purpose.
“Even so, it doesn’t stop Tzu Chi branches around the world from educating the local communities on the importance of developing this technology for the future,” he told thesundaypost.
Explaining the production process, Hwong said plastic bottles collected at recycling centres would be sorted by colour, labels, and caps, which are taken out before the bottles are bundled up.
“The bottles will then be crushed into plastic flakes to make plastic chips. Under high temperature, the production machine will pull out thin threads of polyester fibre – usually white or green depending on the original colour – to be used for making garments and blankets.”
He explained that eight to 12 1.5-litre bottles are required to make a T-shirt and 64 bottles of the same capacity can make a standard-sized blanket.
The blankets are available in dark blue or light green. They are thick and warm, and usually distributed to disaster victims.
“These blankets have now become a symbol of warmth and compassion, giving the victims a sense of security and love which we hope to spread in the community during challenging times,” Hwong said.
Tzu Chi has also used recycled plastic bottles to produce multipurpose foldable furniture, which can double up as a bed or a chair.
The furniture designed by the foundation has gained recognition worldwide, bagging several awards at the 44th International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in 2016.
“It was inspired by a mother who gave birth in the chaos of a disaster. The Tzu Chi volunteers saw the newborn baby being laid on the cold dirty floor and came up with the idea of multipurpose furniture that is easy to use.
“This light, handy, and stable structure was given high marks at the international exhibition in Geneva. Its main purpose is to provide relief to disaster victims – at least a place to rest,” Hwong added.
Fellow recycling volunteer Dennis Yee said in Miri alone, the total volume of recyclable waste such as paper, paperboard, and plastic bottles, can reach 17,000kg a month.
“So in a year, we could amass 204,000kg of recyclable waste.”
He said glass bottles for beer, soy sauce, and wine, collected from among the donated recyclables, could reach up to 3,000 pieces a month.
“We don’t add the glass bottles to the overall weight of the recycled items but separate them because they are valued as reusable receptacles for home-made beverages.
“We usually resell them to local businesses and the proceeds are channelled to Tzu Chi Miri for other programmes.”
Like other recycling centres, Tzu Chi receives a lot of out-of-trend clothes.
“Considering the huge amounts donated to our recycling centres and collected every month, it’s sad to note how fast fashion is creating a problem for the environment.
“We may not realise it but the modern generation has been taught to accept the concept of consumerism without thinking about setting boundaries and limitations to achieve a good balance between their lifestyles and the environment.
“Educating the modern generation to be wise consumers isn’t easy but it’s worth a try. Buy only what’s needed and don’t overindulge – like wanting for the sake of wanting, not because there is a need for it.
“Minimising unnecessary purchases and reducing waste can benefit the living environment. This, in turn, can benefit our physical and mental well being,” Yee opined.
Every fourth Sunday of the month is known as Collection Day for Tzu Chi Miri. Pickup trucks are stationed at designated areas such as Luak, Bumiko, Riam, Pujut 5, Permyjaya, and Senadin.
According to Hwong, up to 500 Tzu Chi volunteers are deployed to the collection centres to sort out the donated items.
“When Tzu Chi started the Miri branch in 1999, there was only one lorry going from house-to-house to collect discarded stuff.
“From such a humble beginning, we have been disseminating information on recycling to the local communities — and things developed from there,” he said.
Now Tzu Chi Miri has three recycling centres at the Piasau Industrial area, Taman Tunku, and Lutong Baru (along Jalan Bario), which operate on different days of the week – Piasau (Tuesday), Taman Tunku (Tuesday and Friday), and Lutong (Monday and Thursday).
Although the centres are run by Tzu Chi volunteers, other senior citizens also help out and participate in programmes organised at the centres.
Yee said despite the regular cleaning up and collection efforts, only 5 per cent of the total waste was fully recycled, adding that education is very important in inculcating environmental awareness and value.
“The responsibilities of saving the Earth do not lie with the government or certain agencies alone but should be shared by the global community. People need to know the importance of responsible waste disposal and practise it in their daily life,” he stressed.