Talking Points: R.A.W. Prize Winner Sissi Chao On Turning Trash Into Treasure
Talking Points is a semi-regular series where we highlight some of the key topics discussed at a Generation T keynote, fireside chat or panel discussion.
Standing for Responsibility, Awareness and Wonder, The R.A.W. Prize, is a collaboration between Gen.T and Luxarity, a social initiative from the Lane Crawford Joyce Group.
Last month, the grant was awarded to Sissi Chao, whose startup, REmakeHub, catalyses responsible consumption and works towards the targets set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.
With her parents owning a number of textile factories in Mainland China, Chao learned first hand the detrimental effects the fashion industry can have on the environment. “I went to Shaoxing city where they produce 70 percent of the fabric in China and you can’t even breathe because the air is so terrible, and sometimes there are even dead fish in the river,” she says. “I told my mum that this was horrible and that I didn’t want to do this; instead I decided to focus on cleaning up all the waste that my parents were creating.”
Chao explained at the prize presentation how the grant will grow her vision for a more environmentally friendly future. Here are the key talking points from fireside chat with Gen. T editor Lee Williamson, hosted by Luxarity.
Waste is a misplaced resource—it’s like gold
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.”
Replacing just 1 percent of headphone sales with recycled alternatives could fix the problem of discarded fishing nets globally
“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.”
Will humans survive their fourth second on Earth?
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.”