Where fast fasion goes to die: Tons of unsold and used clothing is dumped in the Chilean desert

Apr 18, 2023 | 1 comment

A Chilean couple search through a mountain of used clothes in the Atacama Desert for goods for her clothing business.

By John Bartlett

Today, the Atacama has attained a less wondrous distinction: as one of the world’s fast-growing dumps of discarded clothes, thanks to the rapid mass production of stylish, inexpensive clothes known as fast fashion. The phenomenon has created so much waste, the United Nations terms it “an environmental and social emergency” for the planet. The challenge ahead is turning off that tap.

Genesis, 27, who is homeless, sifts through piles searching for clothes, blankets and other goods that she can use or sell. The best finds are known brands with price tags still attached.

The numbers tell the tale. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled and consumers began buying 60 percent more clothes and wearing them for half as long as they once did. Today, three-fifths of all clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of production — a statistic that translates into a truckload of used clothing dumped or burned every second. Most of those facilities are in South Asia or Africa, where the nations receiving those loads cannot handle the amount. A landfill on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana’s capital, that is 60 percent clothes and rises 65 feet high, has gained international notoriety as a symbol of the crisis.

The scene in northern Chile has been dubbed in one online video “the great fashion garbage patch,” in a variation of the better-known Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Colossal piles of discarded clothes, with labels from all over the world, stretch as far as the eye can see at the outskirts of Alto Hospicio, a hardscrabble city of 130,000 residents. In one ravine, a pile of ink-stained jeans and pristine suit jackets, bleached by the harsh sun, towered above a mound of fake-fur coats and formal shirts, with price tags still attached. Bottles, bags and other trash are mixed in.

“I was shocked to think that we were becoming the textile dump for developed countries,” says Franklin Zepeda, a native of northern Chile and a director of a sustainability consulting company called Con100cia Circular, which advises businesses how to adopt circular economy practices that minimize waste.

How fast fashion ended up in the desert
If an isolated desert far from Chile’s population centers 1,000 miles to the south seems an unlikely destination for fast fashion’s discards, it helps to know that Chile is also home to one of South America’s largest duty-free ports—located in the coastal city of Iquique on the desert’s western edge. Millions of tons of clothes arrive yearly from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Last year’s tally was 44 million tons, according to Chilean customs statistics.

Local merchants, most of them low-income, pay $20 for bales containing about 1,320 pounds of used clothing. The garments sell in local markets for prices ranging from 12 cents to $2 each.

Duty free ports are designed to encourage economic activity as goods are imported and then often re-exported without the usual taxes and fees. The port was established in Iquique in 1975 to help generate jobs and improve an ailing local economy. Chile became one of the world’s largest importers of secondhand clothes, and Iquique was transformed. As fast fashion exploded, so did imports.

“The zona franca (free zone) was a true revolution” for the city’s residents, says Bernardo Guerrero, a sociologist at Fundación Crear, an organization that studies the city’s history and culture. “They suddenly had access to things they could never have imagined, like their own car.” Apparel began washing in and out of Iquique like waves as global fashions changed. Guerrero recalls a time in the 1990s when almost everybody in the city wore the same style of puffer jacket after shipments of them arrived en masse. It was a sign of what was to come.

Today, about 2,000 businesses of all types operate in the duty free zone—57 percent are foreign. Hand-painted brand logos adorn tall warehouse doorways, and stacks of used cars—another major import—tower over the narrow streets. The free zone also has developed into a sorting depot for the world’s textile waste.

“In essence, we are just recycling the world’s clothes,” says Mehmet Yildiz, who arrived in Chile from his native Turkey two decades ago and operates a clothing import business named Dilara. Yildiz brings in pre-selected clothes from the United States and Europe, most of them from thrift stores such as the Goodwill. Once in Iquique, a team of workers separates them into four categories, ranging from premium to poor quality. He then exports the best garments to the Dominican Republic, Panama, Asia, Africa—and even back to the U.S. for resale.

From imported to scavenged
Clothing that doesn’t make the cut with importers ends up in the hands of truck drivers who ferry it a few miles to the outskirts of Alto Hospicio, where it goes through another cycle of sorting and resale in small shops and street markets, or at La Quebradilla, one of Chile’s largest open-air markets. There, a roaring used clothes trade continues on a half-mile-long strip of more than 7,000 stalls, where featured specialty items have been known to include faded t-shirts commemorating the 2001 US Open golf tournament; a Texan district police force jacket, or a wool hat with the badge of a California university, to name but three.

Clothing vendors sell garmets rescued from the dessert for as little as 12 cents each. In Lima, you can buy a Georgio Armani shirt, new with tags, for $4.

What doesn’t sell at the market is destined for the desert, where it sits, imperishable, as much of it is made from synthetic materials that do not biodegrade. Scavengers salvage what goods they can. On a cool afternoon, a homeless woman named Génesis rummaged through an eclectic pile of formal clothes, nurses’ uniforms, underwear and crocs, taking fleeces and blankets for the cold nights and earmarking the better garments to sell at La Quebradilla, where they may fetch a handful of coins.

“Everything is useful to me,” she says brightly, laughing as she imagines herself in a brand-new summer dress printed with strawberries. “We’re lucky to have found this.”

Holding producers responsible offers a proven solution
However helpful resale markets might have been in an earlier era, they have been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the mounting discards. New efforts, large and small, are underway to deal with clothing waste, and attention to the mess in the desert may inspire additional projects.

However helpful resale markets might have been in an earlier era, they have been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the mounting discards. New efforts, large and small, are underway to deal with clothing waste, and attention to the mess in the desert may inspire additional projects.

In 201, Franklin founded a startup called EcoFibra, which builds home insulation panels from textile waste. “I was motivated by the idea that there was a vast quantity of waste that could perfectly be transformed into raw materials to make new products, reducing the amount of clothes in our desert,” he says. So far, EcoFibras panels have been used in more than 100 homes in northern Chile.

Another startup, Ecocitex, based in Santiago, turns used clothes into clothing yarn, including synthetic wool, that can be used to make new clothes. “Our mission is to eliminate textile waste from Chile,” says Rosario Hevia, Ecocitex’s owner. “It made me so angry that there wasn’t a solution, so I’ve thrown myself into solving it.”

In Iquique, the company that manages the duty-free zone is lending support to recycling programs and Dilara, the clothing importer, plans to open a recycling plant this year to make fillings for couch cushions from the used clothes he cannot sell.

These are small steps, though important. The most promising solution—and one that can handle the scale of the waste problem—lies in the hands of the Chilean government. The World Bank forecasts 3.4 billion tons of garbage will be created every year by 2050. As garbage of all kinds piles up, a growing number of countries are passing laws requiring manufacturers to take financial responsibility for their products at the end of those products’ lives. Laws known as Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR for short, have been passed in India, Australia, Japan, Canada and in some U.S. states.

In 2016, Chile passed its version, calling it Extended Liability of the Producer, or Ley REP for short (using the Spanish acronym). The law makes producers and importers accountable for six categories of waste, including lubricant oils, electronics, batteries, and small batteries, containers and packaging, and tires. Textiles were not included.

Tomás Saieg, who heads the Chilean environment ministry’s circular economy office, says a team is working to add three more product types to the Ley REP, including textiles.

“The most important thing is to turn off the tap, so to speak, so that these clothes don’t keep ending up in the desert,” he says. “Converting Chile from a junkyard into a recycling hub would be the dream, but first we need to add textiles to the Ley REP.”
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Credit: National Geographic

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