Fast fashion garbage pollutes the world’s driest desert

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A pile of unwanted clothes thrown in the Atacama Desert in Chile

ALTO HOSPICIO. Chile: A mountain of discarded clothes, including Christmas sweaters and ski boots, create a strange spectacle in Chile’s Atacama, the driest desert in the world, which increasingly suffers from pollution created by the fast mode.

The social impact of endemic consumerism in the garment industry – such as child labor in factories or paltry wages – is well known, but the disastrous effect on the environment is less publicized.

Chile has long been a hub for second-hand and unsold clothes, made in China or Bangladesh and transiting through Europe, Asia or the United States before arriving in Chile, where they are resold throughout Latin America.

Some 59,000 tonnes of clothing arrive each year at the port of Iquique in the Alto Hospicio free zone in northern Chile.

Clothing merchants in the capital Santiago, 1,800 kilometers to the south, buy it, while much of it is smuggled to other Latin American countries. But at least 39,000 tonnes that cannot be sold end up in landfills in the desert.

“These clothes come from all over the world,” Alex Carreno, a former employee of the port’s import area, told AFP.

“What is not sold in Santiago or sent to other countries stays in the free zone” because no one pays the necessary tariffs to take it away.

“The problem is that clothes are not biodegradable and contain chemicals, so they are not accepted in municipal landfills,” said Franklin Zepeda, founder of EcoFibra, a company that makes insulation boards from clothing. thrown away.

“I wanted to stop being the problem and start being the solution,” he told AFP of the company he started in 2018.

Wasted water

According to a 2019 UN report, global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, and industry is “responsible for 20% of total water waste globally.”

To make a single pair of jeans, 7,500 liters of water are needed.

The same report states that the manufacture of clothing and footwear contributes eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gases and that “every second, an amount of textiles the size of a garbage truck is buried or burned.”

Whether piles of clothing are left in the open or buried underground, they pollute the environment by releasing pollutants into the air or underground water channels.

Clothing, whether synthetic or treated with chemicals, can take 200 years to biodegrade and is as toxic as discarded tires or plastics.

Not all clothes are wasted: some of the poorest people in this region of 300,000 people scour dumps for things they need or can sell in their neighborhood.

Venezuelan migrants Sofia and Jenny, who entered Chile days earlier on a 350-kilometer journey, rummage through a pile of clothes as their babies crawl over them.

Women are looking for “things for the cold,” as nighttime desert temperatures drop to levels unprecedented in their tropical homeland.

To change the mentalities

Chile, the richest country in South America, is known for the voracious consumerism of its people.

Fast fashion advertising “has helped convince us that clothes make us more attractive, make us stylish and even cure our anxiety,” said Monica Zarini, who makes lamp shades, notebooks, containers and bags made from recycled clothing.

Things are changing, however, according to Rosario Hevia, who opened a store to recycle children’s clothing before in 2019 founded Ecocitex, a company that creates yarn from scraps of discarded textiles and clothing in poor condition. The process does not use water or chemicals.

“For many years we consumed, and no one seemed to care that more and more textile waste was being generated,” she said.

“But now people are starting to question themselves.”


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