Shaoil bazar: How thread recycling market created employment for thousands

July 22, 2023

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According to industry experts, Bangladesh could save nearly $500 million in imports if all its textile waste were recycled locally. Bogura’s Shaoil bazar, which recycles threads, operates as a successful model.

If you were to pass through the neighbouring areas of Shaoil bazar of Adamdighi upazila in Bogura district, you are likely to see one or two women on top of a van stacked with large plastic sacks.

On any day of the week, hundreds of vans move in and out of Shaoil bazar – a thriving marketplace for recycling threads where around 2,000 shops recycle garment wastes, especially fabric remnants and defective threads discarded by sweater factories.

These fabrics primarily come from Gazipur, Savar and Dhaka, which create employment opportunities for thousands of people in the area.

According to the locals, Shaoil bazar started as a small marketplace selling hand-loomed blankets, towels, shawls and bedsheets in the 1990s.

Back then, the bazar was in Santahar, and only people from Adamdighi, Dupchanchia, Sonatola and Shibganj upazilas of the Bogura district produced the items at home. Later, people from Kalai, Khetlal and Akkelpur upazilas of Joypurhat district and Raninagar of Naogaon district got involved in weaving winter clothing, blankets and towels.

Photo: Zannat Husna

This created a need for a larger marketplace, so the market shifted to Shaoil bazar from Santahar.

As the winter clothing market grew (which sits twice a week – on Sundays and Wednesdays – all year round with sales reaching approximately Tk3 crore on a weekly basis) businesspersons from all over the country started flocking in.

And with that, the idea of recycling threads became popular. People started buying discarded threads from factories and started hiring employees to process the threads.

Ujjal Hossain has been in the business of thread recycling for the past 26 years. He started small and set up a modest shop with little investment in his mid-20s. Over time his business grew, much like the bazar itself.

Women workers mainly handle the processing of the threads. Photos: Zannat Husna

He told that, at present, 12 people work at his shop – 10 men and two women, to process the threads. “We process the threads in two parts. Some threads can be processed by hand, which our labourers sort out in the shop. For threads that need spinning wheels, women from nearby areas take them at home and sort those,” explained Ujjal.

The second type of thread primarily includes remnant fabrics, defective or rejected threads and such from sweaters factories.

Rehena Begum, a woman in her 40s, lives in a remote village in the Akkelpur Upazila of Joypurhat district. Though she technically has a husband, he lives in Dhaka with one of his other wives and cares little about Rehena.

For more than 10 years now, Rehena has been regularly processing threads at her home to support herself. “The work is sometimes mundane, but it is the only way I can earn a little money and support myself,” said Rehena.

Rehena’s son works at a garment factory in Konabari, Gazipur, and she saves whatever money he can send home to complete the two-bedroom house they started constructing a few years back.

There was a hand-operated spinning wheel in her yard. During our conversation, she started unspooling the remnant sweater fabrics using the spinning wheel. The mechanism was simple – whether it is fabric remnants or defective yarn, you need to make new yarn in the spinning wheel by matching the colour and the type of thread.

How much thread do you need to process in a month to earn a substantial amount of money? We asked. “It all depends on the quality of the thread, as payments vary based on it,” she replied, adding, “A few months back, I took 150 kg of threads and returned those in less than 25 days. I earned around Tk6,000 that month.”

Of course, Rehena is not the only one. According to Ujjal, in his shop alone, hundreds of women from Bogura, Joypurhat and Naogaon districts come to get the threads to process at home. “Sometimes they take as much as 300 to 500 kg of threads at a time,” he added.

Photo: Zannat Husna

And how does the payment system work? “The threads are measured in kilograms, and the payment for spinning wheel-processed threads can vary from Tk30 to Tk60 per kg, depending on the thread’s quality and the processing method’s complexity,” he replied.

Once the thread is processed, the workers in the shop start the next stage: colour setting. According to Ujjal, this means separating the yarns into different colour groups. Once that is done, the yarns are ready to be used again.

These yarns are sold in two parts as well. The local weaver community buys a portion of these threads. They produce blankets, shawls, towels and other commodities in homes and sell them in the open-air market at Shaoil bazar.

The shops supply the rest of the yarns all over the country. According to Ferdous Ali, another shop owner in the bazar, the highest demand for these recycled yarns comes from the Chattogram Hill Tracts areas. Native people use these yarns to weave clothes.

They also supply recycled threads to the sweater factories of Gobindaganj, the shawl manufacturers at Tangail, the towel factories of Kushtia and the banket factories at Thakurgaon.

Recycling does not necessarily mean you can use 100% of what you intend to recycle. So what happens to the waste they have in the shops? In response, Ujjal Hossain and Ferdous Ali pointed toward a woman cutting through a heap of tangled threads at the former’s shop.

She was cutting the waste from the shops into smaller pieces. These lumps of threads are locally used as an alternative to cotton to make duvets and pillows.

This 45-year-old woman’s name was Renu, originally from Raninagar, Naogaon. Her family lost everything in river erosion and moved to Shaoil bazar 14 years ago. She has been working at Ujjal Hossain’s shop for 12 years.

Renu works an 8 am to 5 pm shift for Tk200 per day. In contrast, the male workers receive Tk400 per day.

Why the pay gap? “It’s because women workers only handle the processing of the threads, whereas the men do all sorts of labour, including heavy lifting,” replied Renu.

Despite the pay gap, Renu and other women continue working in the shops to help support their families, as they have few other options for regular employment in rural areas.

Overall, rural households’ purchasing power has improved remarkably, and so have their living standards.

According to the Labour Force Survey and the Household Income and Expenditure Survey of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, in the fiscal year 2016-17, the share of rural non-farm employment became 48%, which was 37% in 2000.

The recycled thread market in Shaoil bazar contributes significantly to improving the living standards of many people in the Bogura, Joypurhat and Naogaon districts. However, its contribution to sustainability in Bangladesh’s textile industry is not recognised.

There is little to no awareness among the people involved in the trade about the environmental impact of textile waste recycling.

Bangladesh’s ready-made garments (RMG) industry is one of the largest in the world. And according to industry experts, Bangladesh could save nearly $500 million in imports if all its textile waste were recycled locally.

In a plenary session at “Promoting Circularity for a Sustainable RMG-sector in Bangladesh,” hosted by the Nordic Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Bangladesh in the capital in March 2023, Salman F Rahman, private industry and investment adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said that around 4,00,000 tonnes of pre-consumer textile waste are produced annually in Bangladesh. This makes the country one of the largest producers of textile scraps in the world.

However, only 5% of this waste is recycled locally.

According to a report published in Textile Focus, the industry accounts for more than 80% of the country’s export revenue, making sustainability and RMG interdependent. In fact, sustainability and circularity are now no longer an option but rather a reality in Bangladesh.

The shops in Shaoil Bazar recycle around 1,67,000 tonnes of thread annually. The produced thread is worth Tk835 crore.

Moreover, the shopkeepers said that business is becoming increasingly difficult as political power and syndicates started taking control of access to textile waste in recent years.

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