The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest deserts in the world. It is known for its otherworldly beauty, characterised by enormous dunes, valleys, and pastel hills of salt, rock, and sand. Barren and remote, this landscape is now used as a dumping ground for unwanted clothes. Read on to learn more about the environmental catastrophe and how this huge desert, which stretches for more than 100,000 square kilometres (38,610 square miles), turned into a fast fashion graveyard.
With the rise of fast fashion, twice as many clothes are being produced today than in 2000. At the same time, these clothes are being worn for half as long as they used to be, resulting in a rapidly growing amount of textile waste. Of the 100 billion garments produced each year, roughly 92 million tonnes end up in landfills.
The volume of waste is so overwhelming that most garbage disposal facilities are unable to handle the load. With nowhere to go, the clothing is disposed of in illegal dump sites wherever they are shipped to. One of these destinations is the port city of Iquique in Chile.
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Iquique is home to one of South America’s largest duty-free ports, where goods can be imported and exported without the usual taxes and fees. Under the encouragement of free trade, millions of tonnes of clothes are brought to Chile from Europe, Asia, and the Americas every year – making the country one of the world’s largest importers of second-hand clothes. Last year, Chilean customs reported an arrival of 44 million tonnes of clothes.
On arrival, the clothes are sorted according to quality. High-quality garments are exported back to the world for resale. More often than not, the quality of clothes is so low that a large volume is deemed worthless and ends up in the hands of locals tasked with its disposal – usually, somewhere the government will not notice, such as the Atacama Desert.
In 2022, the BBC reported that more than half of the clothes imported to Chile end up in the desert.
The Atacama Desert is not the only fast fashion graveyard in the world. From India to Ghana, unwanted clothes form tall mounds around settlements and on beaches.
These clothing landfills have dire consequences for local communities and the environment. Most garments, made from non-biodegradable materials such as polyester and nylon, do not break down. They are destined to sit in a landfill for hundreds of years, leading to pollution and water contamination. Sometimes, these clothing piles are lit on fire, releasing black clouds of toxic fumes.
Unfortunately, recycling alone is not enough to fix the problem of growing textile waste. Instead, we need to be thoughtful about our purchases as consumers. When you see an item you think you want, don’t buy it immediately. Instead, take a week to consider why you want the clothing item and whether you have something similar at home. Is it an item that you can wear often?
If able, buy higher quality or second-hand. Higher quality clothes will ensure that your clothes last longer than a few washes. Consider upcycling – turning an outfit you don’t wear anymore into a new bag or clothing item.
Featured image: EO Photographer Rayhan Ahmed
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