Design + Environmental Protection + Helping the Disadvantaged－Recycled PET Tote Bags by FNG Design
Chen Chun-fang /photo byLin Min-hsuan /tr. byPhil Newell
In 2018, Taiwan recycled about 5.2 billion PET bottles. Even though recycling cannot completely compensate for the negative effects of plastic on the environment, the social enterprise “For Next Generation Design” is working to find more uses for recycled PET, and pays five times the market price for recyclable bottles in order to improve the lives of recyclers. They hope they can use design to create a virtuous circle for the environment.
The social enterprise “For Next Generation Design” is working to find more uses for recycled PET. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
The most noticed campaign on crowdfunding platforms in 2018 was one for environmentally friendly tote bags. In fact, it set a record for the highest number of contributions on Taiwan crowdsourcing platforms for a product promoted as being environmentally friendly. What is the attraction of these seemingly mundane bags?
A bag for carrying ideals
These tote bags took For Next Generation Design (FNG) two years to develop. Each bag is made of 100% recycled PET plus three wooden buttons, with the goal of reducing use of the planet’s resources.
PET bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of polyester. After recovered bottles are washed, shredded, and melted into polyester resin pellets, the material is drawn into fibers and spun into yarn, which is used to weave fabric to be made into clothing and other woven goods. Taiwan’s recycled PET fiber technology is already extremely mature, and many international clothing brands use environmentally friendly fiber from Taiwan.
FNG founder Tsai Jinpeng—nicknamed “Tsai Tsai”—states that most such brand-name garments contain 10‡50% recycled fiber. The reason they do not use 100% recycled fiber is not due to technological issues, but to cost. Fiber made from recycled PET is about 40% more expensive than fiber from new materials.
“Tsai Tsai,” the founder of For Next Generation Design (FNG), uses the power of design to give new life to recycled PET bottles.
Despite the much higher costs, Tsai Tsai argues that only when products are made from 100% recycled PET fiber, and the materials can be returned their original state when they are recycled after the products have worn out, can the ideal of the circular economy be genuinely put into practice, without creating any burden on the environment.
The crowdfunding campaign for the PET tote bags included plans for purchasing used bottles from recyclers on better terms. FNG has been cooperating with Do You a Flavor, a social enterprise that has long been helping recyclers, to purchase PET bottles from them at five times the market price.
Tsai Tsai says that the individual recyclers who collect recyclables in local communities are usually poor people, and are often stigmatized. But each one has his or her own sad backstory. Despite earning only a few hundred NT dollars from a whole day of collecting recyclables, they choose waste collection because they have no other choice. Nevertheless, recyclers earn their income through their own toil, so if FNG can raise the price for collecting PET bottles, this will not only help recyclers economically, it will also be a sign of respect to these people who work so hard to make a living.
Recyclers get their income through physical labor. Their spirit of perseverance in adversity deserves our respect. (courtesy of FNG)
Rather than marketing PET tote bags using slogans based on environmental protection or improving the welfare of the disadvantaged, Tsai Tsai hopes to sell the bags based on their attractiveness and functionality. Besides being used as tote bags, they can be folded down into bags for carrying a fitness bottle or other drinks container. The tote bags, which are over 30 centimeters deep, can also be folded down to the size of one’s palm, making them very convenient to carry around. The only materials in them are recycled PET fibers and three wooden buttons, and their design has been gradually optimized by adjusting the position of the buttons to make the bags easier to fold away, and to correctly place the center of gravity when they function as a drinks bag. These adjustments were made millimeter by millimeter, revealing that what appears to be a simple tote bag is not simple at all.
Integrated industrial value chain
Although FNG was only founded in 2018, its first product—the PET tote bag—has been a real hit. But behind this success story are Tsai Tsai’s 20 years of experience in the textile industry.
Generally speaking, recycled fiber is not as strong as newly made fiber. If you hope to make the texture and load capacity of products made from recycled fiber better than those made from new fiber, this depends on the structure of the yarn and the arrangement of the warp and weft yarns in the weave. Optimizing the fabric through textile technology created tote bags that can hold 15 kilograms and are both water repellent and stain resistant.
The process of making the PET tote bags starts with drawing out the fiber, spinning it into yarn, and weaving the yarn into fabric at the weaving plant. After various other processes, the fabric is printed, cut and finally machine-sewn. Traditionally, the cloth was printed after cutting, but considering the styling of the tote bags, after consulting a master fabric cutter with more than 40 years of experience, Tsai Tsai decided to change the traditional process. When they first started out, the die blades on the fabric cutting press had to be periodically adjusted, and only one piece could be cut at a time. After adopting a variety of techniques and tools, today they can cut 20 layers at once and can still cut the pattern accurately from the top layer to the bottom.
Tsai Tsai says that the factories that manufacture FNG’s tote bags are in fact part of the textile industry value chain that supplies international brands. These manufacturers all have Global Recycled Standard (GRS) certification. He has been able to find plants with GRS certification that are willing to support FNG’s ideals thanks to the contacts and experience he accumulated in the textile industry. They are working together to try new approaches and technologies, even turning down some other orders to focus on manufacturing bags for a Taiwanese brand.
FNG has also overturned tradition in putting out sewing work to women homeworkers with their own sewing machines. In the past, after receiving an order a company would just send their material to a contract factory, and they only had to communicate with that plant. Sewing together a bag involves many different steps, each requiring different machinery and techniques. A factory may be able to complete all these processes in house, but women working at home each only have one machine, and so can only undertake one step, making it necessary to send the semi-finished products to different homeworkers for different stages of the sewing. The system is like a widely spread out series of mini-factories, so the team have to spend more time on communication and management, which makes it more difficult to complete orders on schedule. Despite this, FNG has still chosen to give orders to women working at home, hoping to provide them with stable incomes.
The support of veteran textile-industry staff has enabled FNG to produce tote bags from 100% recycled PET fibers.
The next step
Thanks to the efforts of its partner factories and homeworkers, FNG has already completed production of the more than 60,000 tote bags envisioned in its crowdfunding campaign. In the hope of finding even more uses for recycled PET bottles, FNG is now developing bags for boxed meals, as well as combination picnic and board game pads, similarly made from 100% recycled PET fiber.
FNG’s PET tote bags, which marry design with environmental protection and helping the disadvantaged, are born of a sense of mission. (courtesy of FNG)
FNG has also been working with Do You a Flavor, the drinks chain Milkshop International, and the automated recycling station operator Fun Lead Change, to promote the “Recycling-Friendly Project 3.0,” in which automated recycling machines are set up outside drinks shops. Besides PET bottles, they have added PET drinks cups to the list of recyclable items, and will also pay five times the market price to purchase these recyclables from individual recyclers. They hope to use automated machines to expand their service area and help even more recyclers. People who use the automated recycling stations can also collect points which they can redeem for consumer discount cards, providing incentives for everyone to join in the effort to recycle resources and reduce garbage.
FNG is working with Hiin Studio, which is very concerned about the marine environment, on a plan to convert marine debris into flip-flops. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Formerly flip-flops were invariably just thrown away after being worn out, but FNG can combine them with natural rubber and PET fibers to make a wide range of new PET-based sandals. (courtesy of FNG)
FNG’s motto is, “Every choice we make is a vote for the future.” They are working to use recycled fibers to develop practical, durable everyday products with a designer look, in the hope that consumers will like them and will use them for a long time. This can reduce excessive consumption and overexploitation of the earth’s resources. If everyone pitches in, little by little we can create a more positive cycle for the environment.
Combining design with environmental protection and helping the disadvantaged, FNG hopes to bring everyone together to make changes for the benefit of the next generation.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama