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In the Atacama desert, the toxic cemetery of disposable fashion

The desired garment, the ideal size and the dream brand: it is not a large store or a generous wardrobe but the desert of Atacama on Chile turned into a clandestine garbage dump for clothes that are bought, dressed and thrown away in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Colorful hills rise out of the desolate landscape. They are platoons that grow as some 59,000 tons per year enter the free zone of the port of Iquique, 1,800 km from Santiago.

The excessive and fleeting consumption of clothing, with chains capable of releasing more than 50 seasons of new products per year, has caused the world’s textile waste to grow exponentially, which takes about 200 years to disintegrate.

It is clothing made in China or Bangladesh and bought in Berlin or Los Angeles, before being thrown away. At least 39,000 tons end up as hidden waste in the desert in the Alto Hospicio area of ​​northern Chile, one of the final destinations for “second-hand” clothing or from past seasons of fast fashion chains.

Chile is the leading importer of used clothing in Latin America. For nearly 40 years there has been a solid trade in “American clothing” in stores throughout the country, which are supplied with bundles purchased by the free zone in the north of the country from the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia.

“These clothes come from all over the world,” explains Alex Carreño, a former worker in the import zone of the port of Iquique, who lives next to a garment dump.

In this zone of importers and preferential taxes, merchants from the rest of the country select the garments for their stores and what is left over cannot leave the customs of this region of just over 300,000 inhabitants.

“What was not sold to Santiago or went to other countries (such as Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay for smuggling), so it stays here because it is a free zone,” says Carreño.

On the desert landscape there are stains of all kinds of garbage, and many are from clothes, purses and shoes. Ironically, rain boots or sky boots stand out in one of the driest areas in the world.

A lady who does not want to give her name, has half her body sunk in a pile of clothes and rummages in search of the best possible ones to sell in her neighborhood.

Elsewhere, Sofía and Jenny, two young Venezuelan women who crossed the border between Bolivia and Chile a few days ago, some 350 km from the landfill, choose “things for the cold” while their babies crawl on mounds of textiles: “We come to look for clothes because we really don’t have them, we threw them all away when we came back here backpacking ”.

Toxic fashion

Reports on the textile industry have exposed the high cost of fast fashion, with underpaid workers, allegations of child employment and deplorable conditions for mass production. To this today are added devastating figures on its immense environmental impact, comparable to that of the oil industry.

According to a 2019 UN study, the production of clothing in the world doubled between 2000 and 2014, which has shown that it is an industry “responsible for 20% of the total waste of water globally” .

The same report indicates that only the production of jeans (jeans) requires 7,500 liters of water, highlights that the manufacture of clothing and footwear generates 8% of greenhouse gases, and that “every second an amount is buried or burned of textiles equivalent to a garbage truck ”.

In the textile garbage dumps of this Chilean desert, it is possible to stumble upon a United States flag, a pair of polished skirts, see a “wall” of pants with labels and even step on a collection of sweaters with the Christmas motifs so popular at Christmas parties. December in London or New York.

“The problem is that clothing is not biodegradable and contains chemicals, so it is not accepted in municipal landfills,” said Franklin Zepeda, founder of EcoFibra, a circular economy firm with a production plant in Alto Hospicio of panels with thermal insulation based on these disposable clothing.

Underground there are more clothes covered with the help of municipal trucks, in an attempt to prevent fires caused and very toxic by the chemicals and synthetic fabrics that compose it.

But buried or exposed clothing also releases pollutants into the air and into the underground water bodies typical of the desert ecosystem. Fashion is as toxic as tires or plastics.

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