The used clothes dump in the South American Atacama Desert is a symbol for the excesses of the global fast fashion industry. Conditions have still not improved – on the contrary.
09.06.2023, 10:3509.06.2023, 12:42
Have you ever wondered what happens to the clothes you throw away?
The nice idea: Your sports shirt has ended up in the closet of a junior Ronaldinho. The not so nice idea: The T-shirt is lying on a garbage dump in the middle of the desert – possibly for hundreds of years.
Second-hand sports shirts are sold at a market in Nairobi, Kenya. The dresses are mainly from North America and Europe.Image: EPA/EPA
The problem with many items of clothing: they are made of synthetic materials that are not biodegradable, such as polyester. On average, it takes 500 years for them to decompose, no matter what fabric the old clothes are made of. In Switzerland most of the still usable clothes are sold abroad – mainly to Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa and the Middle East.
Sold? Switzerland manages with the transfer of old clothes abroad? Well: According to the Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU), the proceeds from the sale are primarily used to cover the collection and sorting costs. Surpluses would benefit charitable purposes.
Camouflage for disposal of textile waste
It’s a reasonably fair exchange Greenpeace-Research but according to not. “By exporting old clothes, the Global North has found a back door to get rid of its non-recyclable textile waste and is forcing the countries of the Global South to deal with these mountains of waste,” says Michelle Sandmeier from Greenpeace Switzerland to SRF.
Tons of old clothes that Senegal imported from Italy. Image: AP
In Senegal’s markets, undamaged garments are resold at a fraction of the original price.Image: EPA
One of these gigantic piles of old clothes waste lies in South America’s Atacama Desert, which stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes. Chile is one of the world‘s largest importers of unsaleable and used clothing. According to Chilean customs statistics, the country imported 44 million tons of used clothes from Europe, Asia, North, Central and South America in the last year alone.
But for what purpose does the country of almost 20 million import so many clothes that nobody in the Global North wants to wear anymore?
Gateway for our garbage
The hub for imports is the nearby port city of Iquique. Tons of textiles in used clothing containers are imported here every week – duty-free. Because: The village is one of several free zones in Chile. This means that the international exchange of goods is not hindered by any customs formalities such as fees or taxes, which stimulates the economy and trade.
A large pile of used clothing covers the sand near the La Mula neighborhood in Alto Hospicio, Chile, 2021. Image: AP
A man inspects an unsold t-shirt.Image: AP
Chile is one of the world’s largest importers of second-hand clothing. Clothes that cannot be resold often end up in the desert.Image: AP
Since the introduction of the port in 1975, life has improved for the local population. «For the residents, the introduction of the duty-free port was a revolution. Suddenly they could afford things that they never dared to dream of before – like their own car,” sociologist Bernardo Guerrero says «National Geographic».
Fast fashion graveyard in the middle of the desert
Among other things, the many imported clothes create incentives. According to reports, most of the clothes are unworn – from all sorts of fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M and Co. The local population sorts out the mostly cheaply produced clothes, washes them and resells them on the markets. What could no longer be expelled often ends up in the Atacama desert.
“We are no longer just the local backyard, but rather the backyard of the world.”
Patricio Ferreira, mayor of the Chilean desert town of Alto Hospicio
According to estimates, around 40,000 tons of clothing are disposed of illegally in the desert every year. Old clothes and shoes pile up in a gigantic mountain of rubbish in the landscape otherwise known for its extensive salt flats.
“We are no longer just the local backyard, but rather the backyard of the world, which is worse,” said Patricio Ferreira, mayor of the desert city of Alto Hospicio, to AFP. New satellite images show that this is no exaggeration: the eyesore is now visible from space.
— SkyFi (@SkyfiApp) May 10, 2023
Satellite imagery from satellite imagery developer SkyFi shows a strange view of the Atacama Desert.
Devastating consequences for people and the environment
Pollution not only hurts the eye, but also poses a threat to people and the environment. Spurred on by the insatiable hunger for fast fashion, the amount of waste is already so great that the United Nations speaks of an “emergency for the environment and society”.
Demonstrators taking part in a climate protest are reflected in a clothing store window in Santiago, Chile, 2019. Image: AP
Because: Parts of the landfills are often set on fire to minimize them. With devastating consequences: The materials are highly flammable and pollute the air. This mainly affects the people who live in the populated desert areas. In addition, the ecosystem of the desert is fragile. Some cactus species are already considered extinct due to climate change.
“We started cleaning up once, but then they just leave their dirt a bit further.”
The government sees no need for action and takes care of other problems, such as corruption, violence and illegal immigration. Mayor Ferreira is trying to take action against the landfill. But he is helpless when it comes to the waste problem: “These are unscrupulous people from all over the world who come here to dispose of their waste. We started cleaning up once, but then they just leave their dirt a bit further.”
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