In the early morning of Boxing Day in 2004, when people were yet to wake up from the festivities of the day before, a tidal wave 30 metres tall crashed upon coasts in South Asia, leaving at least 290,000 people dead and 510,000 injured.
In the wake of the catastrophe, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, the largest charity in Taiwan, rushed to the disaster-stricken area to distribute a countless number of blankets to keep people warm. Tzu Chi not only works in South Asia; wherever there is a disaster, it rushes there in the shortest time possible. If you were to count them, it would soon become clear that Tzu Chi gives out tens of thousands of blankets each year.
But the raw material normally used in blankets, polyester fibre, is a product of petroleum refining, so the more blankets that are produced, the more quickly resources are depleted. One day, an idea suddenly came to the mind of Tzu Chi’s founder Dharma Master Cheng Yen – “plastic bottles are also made from polyester fibre, so why not turn plastic bottles into blankets?”
By something of a coincidence, Tzu Chi had already established more than 5,000 resource recovery centres around Taiwan, which were hard at work collecting an incalculable number of plastic bottles. After hearing the Master’s idea, five entrepreneur volunteers decided to put it into practice. Four years later, DA.AI Technologywas created.
Turning waste into gold: the alchemy of recycling plastic bottles
In fact, the idea of extracting yarn from plastic bottles for textile purposes had been tried earlier by other businesses. However, impurities in the raw materials tended to result in poor-quality end products that could only be used as filling for stuffed toys.
After many rounds of repeated attempts, DA.AI Technology realised that the key to quality yarn lay in the level of purity and cleanliness of the plastic bottles. If there were too many impurities in the recycled bottles, breakages would easily occur in the process of yarn drawing and filament, making the highest grade of yarn difficult to produce.
Therefore, the team established a standard operating procedure in every resource recovery centre across the country: the PET-1 plastic bottles would first be picked up, before being cleaned and classified by bottle colour, removed of their bottle caps and rings and then compressed into bricks. Later, these bricks would be delivered to manufacturers to be broken down and plasticised into polyester granules before yarn would be extracted for producing end products.
In addition, after considering the fact that piece dyeing one tonne of fabric generates one hundred tonnes of waste water, DA.AI Technology decided not to piece dye all its products and instead keep the original colour of the plastic bottles. For example, when DA.AI Technology wants to produce a green end product, it will use Super Supau or Sprite plastic bottles, while fabrics in black, white, grey, blue or brown colours are made from recycled bottles from different beverage brands.
By dealing with the problems of water consumption, energy consumption and pollution, the fate of the rubbish is also changed. Even though plastic bottles were already being systematically recycled by Tzu Chi in the past, they still ended up being sold by weight to treatment plants for further disposal, with only a meagre income later being donated to DA.AI TV, a television company owned by Tzu Chi. Nowadays, DA.AI Technology buys recycled plastic bottles at a higher price, meaning that used plastic bottles have become valuable industrial raw materials.
According to the team’s estimates, if making good use of raw materials, it can produce one t-shirt from 12 plastic bottles, one baby hoodie from 22 bottles, one suitcase from 42 bottles and one warm blanket from 64 bottles. Apart from end products, DA.AI Technology also sells semi-finished products, such as fabrics, yarn and polyester granules, to other manufacturers.
Creating a complete industry cycle by saving water and energy and producing no waste
Compared with the conventional manufacturing process, recycling a 600ml plastic bottle can save approximately 63 grams of carbon dioxide, 16 millilitres of petroleum and 3 litres of water. Over the last nine years, DA.AI Technology has already recycled more than 520 million plastic bottles, which is the equivalent of saving 330,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 8.41 million litres of petroleum and 1.4 billion litres of water.
Among DA.AI Technology’s products, grey blankets, green blankets and polyester granules have been granted Carbon Footprint Certification by the German TÜV SÜD, and its grey blankets have also been granted Water Footprint Certification. In order to fully pursue the goal of zero waste, its blankets are designed to be fully recyclable, with the ability to be decomposed into raw materials, thereby giving industrial resources a cycle of infinite use. Due to this, DA.AI Technology was the first organisation to receive silver Cradle to Cradle certification in Asia.
DA.AI Technology’s blankets have also served their purpose in disaster-stricken areas in over 30 countries, including Taiwan, the Philippines, China, Japan and the USA, warming the hearts of more than 600,000 victims.
Using its technology, DA.AI Technology has further developed functional fabrics for clothing that include quick-drying, cool-feeling, warm retention, deodorising, antistatic, water-repelling and anti-electromagnetic wave functions among others. It has also been pioneering in its creation of a “Production History Card”, which allows consumers to trace the source of raw materials and learn about energy conservation data. In this way, people can feel the power of environmental protection whilepurchasing products.
Chairman of the board, Huang Hua-de, who put aside his original business to set up DA.AI Technology, said: “In the past, when I was engaged in other business, I had to consider customers, the market and products. Therefore, it was more difficult for me to be concerned with charitable ideas. Now I am doing a good thing for society as long as I work hard for my organisation.” Indeed, all the company’s after-tax profit is given to Tzu Chi for charitable purposes, and the five co-founders have donated 100% of the company’s equity to Tzu Chi.
Huang Hua-de firmly said: “This brand, born when I turned 60, has taken my career and vocation, as well as my dedication to public welfare and commerce, into another cycle of kindness.” As it stands, DA.AI Technology has not only been able to sell its products to many countries around the world, but has also created a classic model for “turning waste into gold” in Taiwan.