In the Atacama desert is the toxic graveyard of disposable fashion

  • By:karen-millen



AFP / Iquique (Chile)

The desired garment, the ideal size and the dream brand: it is not a large store or a generous closet but the Atacama desert in Chile turned into a clandestine dump of clothes that are bought, worn and thrown away in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Colorful hills rise out of the desolate landscape. They are squads that grow as some 59,000 tons per year enter through the Iquique free zone, 1,800 kilometers from Santiago.

The excessive and fleeting consumption of clothing, with chains capable of releasing more than 50 seasons of new products per year, has caused textile waste to grow exponentially in the world, which takes about 200 years to disintegrate.

This is clothing made in China or Bangladesh and bought in Berlin or Los Angeles, before being thrown away. At least 39,000 tons end up as garbage hidden in the desert in the Alto Hospicio area, in northern Chile, one of the final destinations for "second-hand" clothing or from past seasons of fast fashion chains.

Chile is the leading importer of used clothing in Latin America. For nearly 40 years there has been a solid trade in "American clothing" in stores throughout the country, which are supplied with bundles purchased by the free zone in the north of the country from the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia.

“These clothes come from all over the world,” explains Álex Carreño, a former worker in the import zone of the port of Iquique, who lives next to a clothing dump.

In this area of ​​importers and preferential taxes, merchants from the rest of the country select the garments for their stores and what is left over cannot go through customs in this region of just over 300,000 inhabitants.

“What was not sold to Santiago or went to other countries (such as Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay for smuggling), then stays here because it is a free zone,” says Carreño.

On the desert landscape there are patches of all kinds of garbage, and much of it is from clothes, handbags and shoes. Ironically, rain or sky boots stand out in one of the most arid areas of the world.

In the Atacama desert is the Toxic Cemetery of Disposable Fashion

A lady who doesn't want to give her name has half her body sunk in a pile of clothes and rummages around looking for the best possible ones to sell in her neighborhood.

Elsewhere, Sofía and Jenny, two young Venezuelans who crossed the border between Bolivia and Chile a few days ago, some 350 kilometers from the dump, choose “things for the cold” while their babies crawl on textile mountains: “We come to look for clothes because we really don't have them, we threw them all away when we came backpacking here”.

Toxic fashion

Reports on the garment industry have exposed the high cost of fast fashion, with underpaid workers, allegations of child labor and deplorable conditions for mass production. Added to this today are devastating figures on its immense environmental impact, comparable to that of the oil industry.

According to a 2019 UN study, the production of clothing in the world doubled between 2000 and 2014, which has made it clear that it is an industry "responsible for 20% of the total waste of water worldwide." global".

The same report indicates that only the production of jeans (jeans) requires 7,500 liters of water, highlights that the manufacture of clothing and footwear generates 8% of greenhouse gases, and that "every second it is buried or burns an amount of textiles equivalent to a garbage truck”.

In the textile dumps of this desert, it is possible to stumble upon an American flag, a pair of polished skirts, see a “wall” of pants with labels and even step on a collection of sweaters with the Christmas motifs so popular at parties December in London or New York.

“The problem is that clothing is not biodegradable and contains chemicals, which is why it is not accepted in municipal landfills,” Franklin Zepeda, founder of EcoFibra, a circular economy firm with a production plant in Alto, told AFP. Hospice of panels with thermal insulation based on this disposable clothing.

Underground there are more garments covered with the help of municipal trucks, in an attempt to prevent fires caused and very toxic by the chemicals and synthetic fabrics that compose it.

But clothing buried or exposed also releases pollutants into the air and into the groundwater tables typical of the desert ecosystem. Fashion is as toxic as tires or plastics.

The price of a jean: 7,500 liters of water
According to figures from the United Nations Environment Program, making a jean requires 7,500 liters of water, which would quench a person's thirst for seven years. In addition, in the entire process (from producing the cotton to transporting it to the store) 33.4 kilos of equivalent carbon are emitted, reports the InfoRSE website. These data, published by UN Environment and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, can give an idea how polluting the fashion industry is. Each year, this industry uses approximately 93,000 million cubic meters of water, which would be enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people. 20% of the wastewater of the world come from the dyeing and treatment of textiles. 87% of the fibers used to make clothes are incinerated or go straight to landfill. And 60% is discarded within a year of its manufacture. The textile industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, much more than the maritime and air transport sectors combined. If this pace continues, greenhouse gas emissions for the fashion sector will increase by more than 50% by 2030.
In search of a new textile economy
Foundations such as Ellen MacArthur's, initiatives such as the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion –created a couple of years ago, in which the World Bank's Connect4Climate program and other institutions also participate–, encourage a new textile economy change this landscape. The goal is to explore new materials to make clothing that is more durable, that can be resold or recycled to make other products, and that reduces pollution. According to the World Bank website, some of the most important brands already answer this question. called and they are working on discovering new possibilities with materials and developing processes that are more environmentally friendly. Technology and research are playing a determining role in the transformation of the industry. From sports shoes or clothing with materials extracted from plastics that are thrown into the sea; use of fish skins, natural inks instead of chemicals, backpacks and purses made from discarded canvas; fruit peels to replace skins, even a garment return system so that the same brand is in charge of recycling them. In September, the Green Carpet fashion event was held in Bolivia. At the meeting, recycling in clothing was promoted.

In the Atacama desert is the toxic graveyard of disposable fashion
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