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DA.AI: Values-Added PET Project

By Lin Hsin-ching
Published: Jun 09,2014

“PET” plastic bottles have a very high value when recycled, as they can be remanufactured into a variety of products woven from polyester fibers. In this field, many Taiwan companies have mature technology, yet one has drawn particular attention: DA.AI Technology, a textile firm that combines environmental consciousness and humanitarian ideals with superior product design and minimal-waste manufacturing.

A component of the Tzu Chi Buddhist organization, DA.AI is Taiwan’s first environmental public-interest enterprise. Since being founded in 2008, DA.AI has remanufactured 330 million plastic bottles into polo shirts, underwear, towels, hats, bed sheets, and many more items.

Of these, the most widely praised have been the “environmental blankets” that have been donated to help warm the bodies and hearts of nearly 800,000 disaster victims and refugees in more than 30 nations around the world, including the US, the Philippines, Australia, Japan, and mainland China.

Figure I: Walter Huang, chairman of DA.AI Technology, founded the firm in cooperation with four other leading figures from Taiwan's business and industrial community, creating an entirely new model of a
Figure I: Walter Huang, chairman of DA.AI Technology, founded the firm in cooperation with four other leading figures from Taiwan's business and industrial community, creating an entirely new model of a "social enterprise."

April has arrived, and here in the subtropics it’s already dog-panting weather. An environmentally friendly “cool” shirt, made with fibers from ten recycled PET bottles blended with wicking yarn, will make your body feel cooler by a degree or two. And how cool is it that its production process also saves 252 grams of carbon emissions, 5.2 cubic centimeters of petroleum, and 886 cc of water in comparison to its mainstream competitors?!

An environmentally friendly baby wrap, made from 14 recycled PET bottles, keeps newborns safe and warm. This purpose-designed fabric is very soft to the touch and prevents the buildup of static electricity. Not only will it keep your infant’s skin baby-smooth for today, it also contributes to his or her future by reducing­ carbon emissions by 353 grams, petroleum use by 7.3 cc, and water use by 1240 cc.

Each and every item comes with a complete recycling and production history, allowing customers, with a single glance, to retrace the production chain and know how much energy was saved. The designer of these remarkable products is Taiwan’s first environmental public-interest enterprise, DA.AI Technology.

Emerging from the tsunami

DA.AI was founded in 2008 with initial capital provided by five prominent business figures in Taiwan: Wei Ying-chung, chairman of Wei ­Chuan Foods; Fred Lin, one of the founders of Acer; Gao Ming­shan, chairman of Dong Ying Construction; Li Ding­ming, head man at Kee Yeh Shipping; and Walter ­Huang, chairman of the TEXMA clothing company. ­Huang, the one with the most expertise in the textile sector, was named as chairman.

But to get the whole story, we have to rewind back to 2003. In that year ­Huang and the other four business leaders, following the lead of Tzu Chi founder Buddhist Master ­Cheng Yen, created the Tzu Chi International Humanitarian Aid Association (TIHAA). These business figures—one in each of five major fields: food, clothing, housing, transportation, and IT/communications—then organized teams to develop a variety of environmentally friendly products to provide assistance to victims of disasters home and abroad.

When the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 struck, the TIHAA rushed to the worst hit area, the Indonesian province of Aceh. There the group’s leaders were deeply moved by the extent of the devastation and the helplessness of the victims. The evidence of the enormous destructive power of nature also made more urgent their pre-existing concern over the ongoing problem of global climate change. Consequently, they could not help but ask themselves, “As entrepreneurs who have resources and capabilities, is there not more we can do?”

After they returned to Taiwan, the TIHAA put to use a unique resource: PET bottles which had, for many years, been continuously collected for recycling from all over Taiwan by Tzu Chi volunteers. These became the raw material to manufacture blankets. Thus did DA.AI take embryonic shape.

Figure II: Polyester pellets made from recycled PET bottles can be spun
Figure II: Polyester pellets made from recycled PET bottles can be spun

Zero waste production

directly into green, white, and dark colored yarns.

Walter ­Huang says that the key to remanufacturing PET bottles is that the recycling be done the right way. This is why the 5462 Tzu Chi recycling stations nationwide are so critical to DA.AI’s operations. Staffed by more than 70,000 volunteers, every day they meticulously separate out different types of recyclables and clean them thoroughly to ensure they have the purity required to be used as raw materials.

PET bottles must be separated out by color, the labels removed, and the neck rings and caps (which are made of a different type of plastic from the bottles themselves) cut away. The bottles are then sent to a downstream processor who flakes and pelletizes them. The pellets can be spun into polyester yarn, woven into fabric, and tailored into goods. It takes about 67 recycled PET bottles to make a blanket measuring 230 by 180 centimeters.

The blankets made from recycled PET bottles have won wide acclaim home and abroad. They are not only lighter and softer than cotton cloth but they carry with them an intangible warmth and the ideal of sustainability. Having witnessed the positive impact of the blanket program, Walter ­Huang and the other business leaders decided to broaden operations, and at the end of 2008 they founded DA.AI Technology.

Giving the earth a break

Since its founding, DA.AI has not only come out with a variety of environmentally friendly products including sportswear, bedding, and baby garb, it has adhered rigorously to the principle of “clean manufacturing.” They insist that no additional waste is generated during the production process.

Walter Huang mentions dyeing as a case in point. It takes about 100–130 liters of water to dye one kilogram of fabric, for which reason DA.AI often prefers to keep their recycled fabrics in the original color. Clear PET bottles are remanufactured into white fabric, green ones into (naturally!) green fabric. Meanwhile, they get the color for the company’s grey blankets by adding organically made charcoal to the yarn during the pelletizing process.

DA.AI has been spreading their sustainability mantra through product exhibitions home and abroad and through the global network of Tzu Chi volunteers. Operational performance has continually improved, and revenues are currently running at nearly NT$400 million per year. The firm is one of the shining stars in the firmament of Taiwanese makers of specialty products, and the brand name is now widely recognized around the world as a leader in environmentally friendly production. And they are far from finished: They also want you to get involved and do what you can to imitate or support the DA.AI model!

(photos by Chuang Kung-ju/tr. by Phil Newell)

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