In a stretch of Atacama, Chile, the monochromatic monotony of the desert landscape gives way to wide colored hills. It is not, however, a tourist attraction. At the site, items pile up in a clandestine garbage dump, most from far away — from Europe, the US, Asia.
Previously produced and marketed in places as far away as factories in China or Bangladesh, stores in Berlin or Los Angeles, they were simply thrown away. At least 39,000 tons end up as waste in the desert, in the Alto Hospício area, in the north of the country.
The region is one of the ultimate destinations for secondhand or off-season clothing from fast fashion chains — which are capable of producing more than 50 collections each year.
Chile is the largest importer of used clothing in Latin America. For nearly 40 years, there has been a solid trade in so-called “American clothing” in stores across the country, supplied with bales that enter through the duty-free zone of Iquique, in the north of the country. The city, with 300 thousand inhabitants, is 1,800 km from Santiago.
“These are clothes that come from all over the world,” explains Alex Carreño, a former worker in the port’s import zone, who lives near a dump. 59,000 tonnes of these items per year enter Iquique.
In the region, where preferential rates apply, importers and merchants from the rest of the country choose the pieces for their stores. The ones that are left cannot pass through customs. “What was not sold nor was it sold to other countries [como Bolívia, Peru e Paraguai, para contrabando], stays here, because it is a free zone”, says Carreño.
In the desert landscape, then, stains of all sorts of garbage accumulate—many of them from clothes, bags and shoes. Ironically, rain and ski boots stand out in one of the driest areas in the world.
In the AFP report, a woman who prefers not to reveal her name speaks with her body half buried in a pile of clothes. She looks for the best possible parts to resell in her neighborhood.
Nearby, two young Venezuelans who crossed the border between Bolivia and Chile (350 km from the landfill) a few days ago, choose “things for the cold”, while their babies crawl on the textile hills: “We came looking for clothes because we really don’t there is, we threw everything away when we came backpacking,” says one of them.
The excessive and fleeting consumption of clothes has shown the high cost of the so-called fast fashion. Not only in terms of allegations of child labor, analogous to slavery and under deplorable conditions or poor remuneration. The warning also involves the immense environmental impact, comparable to that of the oil industry.
One of the biggest problems is textile waste, which is growing exponentially in the world. Fabrics can take about 200 years to disintegrate.
A 2019 UN survey showed that world clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, making this industry “responsible for 20% of total water waste globally”.
According to the document, the manufacture of clothes and shoes still generates 8% of greenhouse gases and “every second an amount of fabric equivalent to a garbage truck is buried or burned”.
In the textile dumps of the Chilean desert, it is possible to bump into a United States flag, see a “wall” of pants with labels, and even step on a collection of sweaters with Christmas motifs.
“The clothing is not biodegradable and contains chemical products, which is why it is not accepted in municipal landfills”, says to AFP Franklin Zepeda, founder of EcoFibra. The circular economy company, with a production unit in Alto Hospício, produces panels with thermal insulation made from discarded clothes.
In the basement there are even more parts, covered with the help of municipal trucks, in an attempt to avoid fires caused and very toxic by chemical products and synthetic fabrics.
Buried or exposed, however, they release pollutants into the air and groundwater typical of the desert ecosystem. The garbage dump at Atacama proves that fashion can be as toxic as tires or plastics.