Profiteers are making cash from your donated clothes

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Profiteers are making cash from your donated clothes


Earlier this year when the temperature outside fell below negative 6.5 degrees Celsius (20.3 degrees Fahrenheit), three Mongolian students residing together in a small apartment in Incheon without a heating system couldn’t bear the cold and decided to take winter clothes out of a clothing bin on the street in their neighborhood.

Two months later, police officers come to their home and brought them to the police station where they were booked and told that they were being investigated for special larceny. To their surprise, they were told that taking clothes out of a clothing bin is regarded as a theft, and moreover that the act was “special larceny” because it involved a group of more than two people.

The winter clothes the students took may have been thrown out or donated by residents to be given to charity or recycled, but under the current law, clothes put into the bin instantly become the private property of the bin’s owner.

The Incheon Yeonsu Police Precinct said the three Mongolian students taking clothes out of the bin were caught on CCTV on Jan. 31, so the police tracked them down and finally arrested them on March 16. However, according to the police, since they are “poor overseas students studying in Korea,” and since they testified that they “didn’t know it was considered theft to take clothes from the clothing bin as there were a lot of trash around the bin and they thought the clothes were also regarded as trash that nobody wanted,” the police said they decided to transfer the case to the minor offense unit.

“We’ve looked around their house and were able to confirm that they were suffering from financial difficulties and living through winter without a heater,” said the police.

When the news about the students spread through the Internet, netizens began criticizing the “absurd regulation” and questioning the purpose of the clothing bins.

“I frequently put clothes that I don’t really wear in the clothing bins, although I could sell them at secondhand stores, thinking they will help people exactly like the Mongolians who needed them,” said Hwang Ja-kyung, 34, of Seoul. “When I heard the news about the students and that they were arrested, I was really shocked that many of the clothing bins are not being properly managed and that some random private owners may be making profits by selling my donations.”


Children in the Philippines pose for a photo to thank Otcan, a nonprofit organization that helps people in underdeveloped countries with discarded clothes from Korea. [OTCAN]

Profitable business

The entire used clothing business is shrouded in mystery. No one seems to be keeping track of who collects and benefits from the clothes in the clothing bins that are found on the streets of residential areas and in the recycling zones of apartment complexes across the country.

The appearance of these clothing bins, which are mostly green or gray, dates back to 1998 during the Asian financial crisis. In an effort to help those hit hardest by the crisis during the time of difficulty, the government installed used clothing bins across the country so that people could donate clothes they don’t wear to others in need.

When the Korean economy started to get back on its feet, the clothing bins were used to fund to charitable associations. Since then, the ones on the streets are supposed to be supervised by the local governments while the ones in apartment complexes are to be managed by building managers.

For the bins on the streets, a charitable organization signs a contract with a service company, which collects the clothes from the bins in a designated area. The service company sort the clothes into wearable items that are then sold to underdeveloped countries and the rest that will get sold to a junk dealer. Profits from selling the clothes are meant to be divided between the charity and the service company. These efforts were supposed to be supervised by the corresponding local government, like a district office. Meanwhile, apartment complexes have their own systems for selecting service companies and charitable associations to work with.

However, as the years went by, most of the clothing bins in Korea have fallen into the hands of for-profit recyclers, which have found ways around the lax management system.

In 2012, the Seoul Metropolitan Government conducted an inspection of the clothing bins on the streets of the city and found there are about 13,000 bins. According to an article published by the Kookmin Ilbo last December, most of the clothing bins on the streets of Seoul are in the control of for-profit recyclers. The newspaper reported that when the system was first adopted, it was better managed than it is now, with proper contacts between service companies and charitable associations. But according to the article, “when the contracts expired after one or two years, service companies began to privately operate the bins without removing the names of the [charities] on the clothing bins, pocketing all the profit coming from the bins.”

One man introduced in the article surnamed Kim, 66, who used to work for a service company that collects clothes from the bins, said he installed up to 100 clothing bins in Seoul and made more than an average salary worker.

According to insiders, the recycled clothing business is quite a lucrative job in the area of recycling. While wearable secondhand clothes are exported to underdeveloped countries, even unwearable clothes are sold to junk dealer for more than other recyclable materials.

The Korea JoongAng Daily called several junk dealers and found that they buy used clothing for 200 won per kilo ($0.08 per pound), which is a lot more than scrap paper at 50 won per kilo or scrap iron at 150 won per kilo. A decade ago, insiders said unwearable clothes could be exchanged for up to 1,000 won per kilo.

Local governments are supposed to supervise the clothing bins and keep track of the activities of service companies and charity organizations. But Lee Seok-yong, an official at the Cleaning Administration Division of the Seongdong District Office, said, “The contract between the two gets renewed every two years and unless there’s an issue such as a civil complaint, the district office does not intervene in the management of the clothing bins.”

To find out how some clothing bins are being operated at the moment, the Korea JoongAng Daily randomly selected several clothing bins in Seoul - both on the streets and in apartment complexes - that have telephone numbers on them.

For most of the street bins, the numbers were out of service or no one answered. Finally, a call to a phone number written on a clothing bin located in Seongdong District, which was labeled as belonging to the Seongdong District’s Clothes Recycling Association, went through. A man answered the phone but when asked about which charitable organization the association contracts with, the man hung up the phone without responding.

As for the clothing bins located within apartment complexes, it became clear that they were not for charitable causes but run by for-profit recyclers. When the reporters called a mobile phone number written on three clothing bins at an apartment complex in Haengdang-dong, Seongdong District, a man answered the phone. However, when asked for an interview, he requested anonymity and refused to provide details about his business.

“The contract to collect the clothes from the bins is signed directly with the apartment complex’s administrative office,” the man said over the phone. “This does not involve any kind of donation activities. There’s no regulation that it should.”

The man explained that he picks up the unwanted clothes discarded by residents of the apartment complex, along with other recyclable waste such as plastic, paper, cans and bottles, once a week.

“We sell the clothes we collect from the bins to a qualified trading company that we have signed a proper contract with,” the man added.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said it has been making a new overall plan for managing the clothing bins since late last year. It includes removing all of the current bins, installing new clothing bins that are owned by each district, and unifying the color of the bins to make sure that illegally installed bins are not used.


A green clothing bin like the ones commonly spotted in residential areas. [PARK SANG-MOON]

New approach

Back in 2009, Cho Yoon-chan, who is now the head of the nonprofit organization Otcan, which gives donated clothes to people in underdeveloped countries, wondered about the green clothing bin in his neighborhood and which charity the clothes were going to. After asking around, Cho said he learned that most of the clothing bins were owned by for-profit recyclers. Until then, he had no doubt that they were managed by the local government and used for a good cause.

Infuriated by the feeling of being deceived, Cho, who was then working as a web designer, initiated an online campaign to let the public know the truth. The more he delved into the issue, the more Cho saw that there was no proper and transparent organization that accepted tons of donated clothes for a good cause, so he ended up establishing one.

As implied by the name Otcan - which is a portmanteau of the Korean word “ot,” meaning “clothes,” and the English word “can” - the organization hopes to “encourage people that anyone can help those in need with used clothes.”

You can simply put the clothes you would like to donate in a box and send it to Otcan, which is based in Daejeon. Then the employees at Otcan sort the clothes and send them to underdeveloped countries. Summer clothes are sent to countries such as Cambodia, the Philippines, Ghana, Laos and Haiti, while winter clothes are sent to Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Tibet and Kyrgyzstan.

Surprisingly, Otcan doesn’t donate the clothes to people in those countries, but rather sells them at secondhand clothing markets there. Using the profits from selling the clothes, Otcan helps the people through diverse activities such as art classes, hygiene education and so on.

“We get a lot of questions as to why we don’t just donate the clothes,” said Cho. “At first, that was our initiative, but we soon realized that we didn’t know the local situation.”

According to Cho, tons of discarded clothes from developed countries were already being shipped to these countries frequently, and secondhand clothes markets were already well established there.

“Locals purchase clothes at affordable prices from these markets, which are operated by local merchants. The market economy was already well established there and we learned that giving away free clothes in such an atmosphere only hurts the other locals,” said Cho.

After media reports about the Mongolian students earlier this year, Cho said his organization received a lot of calls from people asking about how to donate clothes. At the same time, the group also received a lot of threatening calls from for-profit recyclers running clothing bins.

“These for-profit recyclers were somewhat hiding behind the clothing bins that people believed to be nonprofit,” said Cho. “I guess they were infuriated that people began to realize that many of the clothing bins are not being used for charitable causes, and since Otcan uploaded a campaign page on Facebook right after learning about what had happened to the Mongolian students and the truth about these bins, the owners of these bins began making threatening phone calls saying they’ll sue us.”

Despite receiving such calls, Cho said he’s relieved that the issue is finally getting public attention. However, he also expressed concern that public interest in the matter is already dying down.

“We were flooded with inquiry calls, but that only lasted a couple of weeks,” he said. “Clothes that are getting thrown out are increasing every year due to the fast fashion trend, and the whole world doesn’t seem to have the ability to handle the disposal.”

Clothing consumption has been skyrocketing in wake of the so-called fast fashion trend. Clothing brands like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo are churning out new styles so frequently at affordable prices, and consumers are changing their wardrobes every season. As a result, the amount of clothing thrown out is increasing every year.

According to the Ministry of Environment, an average of 161.5 metric tons (178 tons) of clothes were thrown out per day in 2008. However, the number jumped by 32.4 percent in 2014, reaching 213.9 metric tons a day or 74,361 metric tons a year.

“Not only in Korea but it’s a global issue that needs to be tackled,” said Kim Mi-hwa, head of a civic group called the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network, referring to textile waste. “Since the trend of consuming clothes has also changed, there needs to be measures for recycling these items.”

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