A mountain of discarded clothes, including Christmas sweaters and ski boots, cuts a strange face in Chile’s Atacama, the driest desert in the world, which is increasingly plagued by pollution created by fast fashion.
The social impact of unbridled consumerism in the clothing industry – such as child labor in factories or ridiculous wages – is well known, but the disastrous impact on the environment is less well known.
Chile has long been a hub of second-hand and unsold clothing, made in China or Bangladesh and goes through Europe, Asia or the United States before arriving in Chile, where it is resold in Latin America.
About 59,000 tons of clothing arrive each year at the Iquique port in the Alto Hospicio Free Zone in northern Chile.
Clothing retailers from the capital Santiago, 1,800 km (1,100 miles) to the south, buy some, while many are smuggled to other Latin American countries. But at least 39,000 tons that cannot be sold end up in landfills in the desert.
“These clothes come from all over the world,” Alex Carreno, a former employee in the port’s import zone, told AFP news agency.
“What is not sold to Santiago or sent to other countries remains in the free zone” as no one pays the necessary rates to take it away.
“The problem is that the clothes are not biodegradable and have chemical products, so they are not accepted in municipal landfills,” says Franklin Zepeda, the founder of EcoFibra, a company that makes insulation panels with disposable clothing.
“I wanted to stop being the problem and start being the solution,” he told AFP about the firm he created in 2018.
According to a 2019 UN report, global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, and the industry is “responsible for 20 percent of the total water wastage worldwide”.
To make a single pair of jeans, you need 7,500 liters (2,000 gallons) of water.
The same report said that the manufacture of clothing and footwear contributes 8 percent of global greenhouse gases, and that “every second an amount of textiles equivalent to a garbage truck is buried or burned”.
Whether the clothing piles are left open or buried underground, it pollutes the environment and releases 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 disposable tires or plastic materials.
Chile, the richest country in South America, is known for the voracious consumerism of its inhabitants.
However, things are changing, according to Rosario Hevia, who opened a store to recycle children’s clothing before Ecocitex was founded in 2019, a company that creates yarn from pieces of discarded textiles and clothing in poor condition. The process does not use water or chemicals.
“For many years we have been consuming, and no one seems to care that more and more textile waste is being generated,” she said.
“But now people are starting to question themselves.”