Chile’s Atacama Desert is known for its beauty, wildlife, starry night skies and amazing hot air balloon rides. Now it’s also becoming infamous for its dunes of discarded fast fashion.
All those clothes lying around for the taking may sound like a teen fashionista’s dream, but the cheap clothes that are being dumped in the Atacama Desert is an environmental disaster. Here’s the surreal story of how unsold clothes intended for American and European markets wind up in Earth’s oldest desert.
Up to 59,000 tons of unsold clothes make their way from the U.S. and Europe to the Iquique Port in Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert every year, according to an Aljazeera estimate. The idea is to sell the clothes in Latin America. But only about 20,000 tons of the clothes leave Chile. What’s left in the Zona Franca de Iquique, or tax-free import zone, winds up piled up in illegal desert landfills or burned.
“The Free Zone has not been able to manage and control this and the State has also abandoned us. We have become a sacrifice zone,” said Patricio Ferreira, mayor of Alto Hospicio, a Chilean municipality located near Iquique, as reported by Today in 24.
Clothing takes hundred of years to biodegrade, if it ever does at all. Many municipal landfills won’t take textiles because chemicals they contain seep into the ground and cause problems.
Some of the other problems with fast fashion — child labor, terrible working conditions and outrageous water consumption — were already common knowledge among people who care about such things. A United Nations news report stated that fast fashion companies use 7,500 liters of water to make a single pair of jeans. This is about equivalent to what the average person drinks in seven years.
Then there’s the half million tons of microfiber that winds up in the world’s seas from repeatedly washing these cheaply-made clothes in washing machines. And the carbon emissions contributed by clothing production — 8% to 10% of the world’s total emissions annually.
But the idea of piles of cheap, vibrantly colored clothing journeying from China to the U.S. and then to an enormous desert in South America is mind-bogglingly bizarre and wrong. One recycling project, Ecofibra Chile, is working with importers to remove textile waste and transform it into thermal insulation panels. Other local groups are trying to get funds to address the problem of discarded clothing with heavy machinery to remove the clothes and recover public spaces, starting with areas closest to cities. Of course, there will still be the problem of where to relocate all those hoodies and dresses.
Lead image via Unsplash