In the Atacama Desert, the poisonous cemetery of disposable fashion

Rain boots or even après-ski boots in the middle of the Atacama Desert: In northern Chile, fly-tipping of used clothing and shoes is growing as the rampant production of cheap fashion scales up the world.

For forty years, the South American country has specialized in the trade of used clothing, between clothes thrown out by consumers, inventory reduction and good deeds from the United States, Canada, Europe or other countries.

Every year, 59,000 tons of clothing arrive at the free zone in the port of Iquique, 1,800 km north of Santiago. In this preferential customs trade zone, the bales are sorted and then sold in second-hand shops in Chile or exported to other Latin American countries.

“These clothes come from all over the world,” Alex Carreño, a former port import worker, told AFP.

But faced with the growth in the amount of clothing produced at low cost in Asia for brands that are able to offer about fifty new collections a year, the cycle is clogged and textile waste is accumulating exponentially.

About 39,000 tonnes of waste are thus stored in wild landfills in Alto Hospicio, a municipality in the suburbs of Iquique.

“What was not sold in Santiago or smuggled to other countries” like Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay “stays here” because it would not be profitable to get them out of the free zone, explains Alex Carreño, who lives not far from a landfill .

“The problem is that this clothing is not biodegradable and contains chemicals, so it is not accepted in municipal landfills,” explains AFP Franklin Zepeda, who has just set up a recycling company EcoFibra to try to solve this growing problem.

– “Get out of the problem” –

In the piles of clothes, an American flag appears, lamé skirts, trousers that still have their marks, sweatshirts in Christmas colors.

Textile Industry (AFP – Tatiana MAGARINOS)

A woman who does not want to say her name sinks into her waist in a pile of textiles to try to find clothes in the best possible condition, which she hopes to resell in her neighborhood Alto Hospicio.

Residents living nearby are taking advantage of the situation to ask for between $ 6 and $ 12 for three pants or to fill a truck. “It’s okay, I’ll sell it and make some money,” she says.

Further afield, two young Venezuelan migrants who recently crossed Chile’s northern border hope to find clothing “for the cold” when temperatures can drop dramatically at night in the area.

According to a 2019 UN study, global clothing production, which doubled between 2000 and 2014, is “responsible for 20% of the world’s total water waste”.

According to the report, the production of clothing and footwear produces 8% of the greenhouse gases, and at the end of the chain “a quantity of textiles equivalent to a truck with waste is” buried or burned “every second.

At Alto Hospicio, a large number of clothes are also buried to avoid fires, which can be very toxic due to the synthetic composition of many substances.

But whether they are buried underground or left in the open, their chemical decomposition, which can take decades, pollutes the air and groundwater.

The government recently announced that the textile industry will soon be subject to the “Extended Producer Liability” Act, which obliges companies that import clothing to take care of textile residues and facilitate their recycling.

In his company in Alto Hospicio, founded in 2018, Franklin Zepeda processes up to 40 tons of used clothing per month. Synthetic and polyester clothing are separated from cotton clothing and then used to make insulation panels for the building.

After 10 years of working in Iquique’s free zone, the entrepreneur, who was tired of seeing these “mountains of textile waste” near his home, decided to “get out of the problem to be part of the solution”.

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