Inside the incredible Sharjah recycling plant that turns discarded clothes into new garments
Each week, a deluge of jeans, dresses and jumpers arrive at its depot to be resold in the developing world
Bags brimming with old clothes lie strewn across the entire factory.
Many garments are ripped, some have holes while others are still in good shape. The sheer volume - more than 4,000 tonnes overall - tower over the 200 employees.
When it first started out nearly 20 years ago, Hands Industries in Sharjah was one of the the UAE's first recyclers of second-hand textiles.
Since then the business has boomed. Giant 150kg bags containing clothing from all four corners of the globe are stacked 10-high. Everything from battered shirts, skirts and shorts is given a new lease of life.
Something that is no use to you has a lot of value for us. Our clothes reach people who need them
Nawaz Khan, Hands Industries
“We take the clothes people don’t want and make them good again…like taking ingredients and making the perfect recipe for someone else," said Nawaz Khan, the firm's sales manager.
“We started 19 years ago with four people and now we have more than 200 employees.
“The concept of used clothing was not a thing back then, we were one of the beginners in the market."
Each week, a deluge of castoffs from around the world arrive at the factory in Sharjah’s industrial freezone.
The company buys the textiles from more than eight countries before recycling and reselling on to customers in the developing world.
The purchase price ranges from 60 cents to $1 per kilo, depending on the country of origin. In just one week, the firm can buy in about 400 tonnes of clothing and export 160 tonnes.
At any one time, the factory has close to 4,000 tonnes of stock to keep business ticking over.
“We love clothes, they’re our survival," Mr Khan told The National.
"Something that is no use to you has a lot of value for us.
“Yes, we make money from them but it goes beyond that. Our clothes reach people who need them.”
Each day, the 100,000 square foot facility handles 60 tonnes of clothes for export to Africa. The factory is split into two sections: cutting and sorting.
About 10 tonnes of items deemed unwearable are sent to the cutting factory to be turned into industrial cleaning rags. And each month, the operations department exports about 200 tonnes of bespoke-cut rags. The UK tends to want bigger cuts, Australia medium and Japan smaller varieties.
“Because of the weather in the UK, the cloths get wet and cold fast, hence the preference for bigger cuts…you know, better absorption," said Mr Khan.
“In Australia, they use the rags in the coal mines mainly, and in Japan we see a demand for smaller cloths because peoples’ hands are generally smaller.”
Everything from underwear to jeans end up on the factory’s conveyor belts, where workers sort the garments by type.
Thirty workers pick through the items and divide them into three main categories. Women’s clothes make up the bulk of the wears, then children’s, then men’s.
A further 60 employees then separate the items into subcategories. In all, the factory receives about 150 types of items, from shoes to bed sheets and dresses to jumpers.
Eighty five per cent of the total amount of items we import are in good shape
Nawaz Khan, Hands Industries
“Eighty five per cent of the total amount of items we import are in good shape…the remaining 15 per cent have some sort of damage,” Mr Khan said.
“Of that number, 50 per cent is exported again as wearable clothes, 40 per cent is turned into industrial wiping rags or insulation and 10 per cent, like broken toys and utensils, are taken away by Bee’ah," he said in reference to the Sharjah-based recycling company.
According to the United Nations Comtrade Database, the used clothing export trade generates $3.7 billion, annually.
The biggest exporter of used clothing in 2017 was Europe, with a value of $1.8 billion. The United Kingdom and Germany made up the bulk of that trade.
In the same year, Africa imported the largest amount of used textiles, totalling $1.2 billion. Ghana, Kenya, Tunisia and Angola took in the majority of garments.
Today, the UAE is one of the top exporters of used clothing globally. In 2017 it had an estimated export value of about $57 million.
Reduce, reuse and rethink is the motto that staff at Hands Industries live by.
“This industry has taught us to rewire our thinking,” Mr Khan said.
“It has shaped our habits towards recycling. At home, I wonder what things can be used for once it has fulfilled its primary purpose.
“Seeing the physical extent of how supply and demand of cheap disposable fashion has fuelled consumption habits has put things into perspective for me.”
The reduce and reuse rhetoric has seen increasing resonance over recent years as environmental campaigners have made clear the damage caused by a failure to recycle.
And the sheer volume of clothes that pass through Hands Industries each week provides a worrying snapshot of the world's throw away culture.
UN statistics show that every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is dumped in a landfill or burned.
The used clothing trade is attempting to bring this number down. But in an industry that revolves around the latest trends, disposable fashion is largely behind the curve when it comes to protecting the environment.
The UN states the fashion industry "produces 20 per cent of global wastewater and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions”. By 2050, it is expected to “use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget” if things do not change.
Updated: November 24, 2019 10:46 AM