The heat is exhausting. All around me is dirt, sand, and a couple of carrion birds circling in the air looking for dead animals. The silence is devastating.
It’s 11 a.m. on a Monday in December. I am in the immense Atacama desert, in the north of Chile, near the city of Iquique, located 1,800 kilometers from the capital, Santiago.
A few meters away, I can see a huge mountain. We approach little by little along an improvised path without footprints.
The image becomes increasingly sharper. Slippers, t-shirts, coats, dresses, hats, bathing suits and even snow gloves make up this amazing massif.
They are garments inexplicably abandoned in the middle of the desert; used clothing that was discarded by United States, Europe or Asia and that is sent to this South American country for resale.
But of the 59.000 tons that are imported each year, a large part of them —it is estimated that around 40.000— it is not sold and ends up in clandestine dumps.
Most of them located on the outskirts of high hospice, a commune with high levels of poverty and vulnerability.
In November, images of these landfills went around the world. At BBC we wanted to go there to find out in depth what is happening.
Here we tell you.
How does the used clothing market work?
Trucks loaded with bales of used clothing enter and leave the Iquique Free Trade Zone, better known as “Zofri”.
This shopping paradise is home to a huge industrial park where more than 1,000 companies trade their products tax-free.
Its strategic location in the north of Chile —and a few kilometers from the port of Iquique— makes it an important commercial center for other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia.
Here are installed at least 50 importers that daily receive dozens of tons of second-hand garments that are then distributed throughout Chile for sale.
The business is huge and completely legal. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), a platform that keeps track of various economic activities in the world, Chile is the largest importer of used clothing in South America, being the recipient of more than 90% of said merchandise in the region.
The owners of the importers have different nationalities; some come from countries as far away as Pakistan.
Speaking somewhat precarious Spanish, several of them decline to give us interviews as they refuse to talk about textile waste. “No one wants to be held responsible,” one of the importers tells us when excusing himself.
But after several failed attempts, the founder of PakChile, Paola Laiseca, He is encouraged to explain to BBC Mundo how the business works.
“We bring clothes from the United States, but they also come from Europe,” she says, sitting in the office of her huge shed, where several bales of second-hand clothes accumulate.
Most of these clothes have previously been donated to charities in developed countries. Much of it is resold in charity shops or given to people in need.
But the one that is not sold or donated in those countries (sometimes because it is damaged) ends up being sent to other countries like Chile, India or Ghana.
Laiseca explains that garments of different quality arrive at the port of Iquique.
“Used clothing comes in bags and here we make a selection, in which a bundle of first (category) is taken out, of second and also a bundle of third.”
“In the first, it is understood that the best garment goes, without details, without stains, impeccable. In the second, a dirty, unstitched garment can go (…). The third one is a more deteriorated product”, he explains.
Although the businesswoman assures that these third-class garments are also sold (and that she does not get rid of more than 1% of what she imports), the local authorities consulted by BBC Mundo pointed out that much of it ends up in clandestine dumps.
“It is known that at least 60% (of what is imported) is waste or disposable and that is what comes to the hills,” he says. Edgar Ortega, in charge of the environment of the municipality of Alto Hospicio.
In Chile it is forbidden to throw textile waste in legal landfills because it generates instability in the soil. Thus, there is no where to leave what is not marketed.
Laiseca acknowledges that there are people who are paid to get rid of clothes they don’t sell.
“Here there are people who dedicate themselves, you pay them, and they come, pick up their bundle, take it away, and there are many people who recycle it, sell it at the fair, and I imagine they will throw it away,” he says.
In accordance with Patrick Ferrera, mayor of the commune of Alto Hospicio, the importers of the free zone “hire freighters, or a collection truck, and pay them to go and dump anywhere.”
carmen garcia, a woman from the small town of Colchane, buys clothes from importers in the Zona Franca to later resell them at the huge La Quebradilla fair in Alto Hospicio. Brands like H&M, Pepe Jeans, Wrangler or Nike are among their offers.
The prices are incredibly low: for less than a dollar you can buy all kinds of shirts or pants.
“Everything you see here comes from Zofri,” he says, showing his store with twenty baskets full of clothes.
García explains that he buys by bags, without being sure of what is inside.
“If you’re lucky, everything turns out beautiful. But there are times when you invest and everything goes to waste,” he says.
When asked where she throws those clothes, the seller affirms that she gives them to people with limited resources, without giving more details.
The fashion industry is one of the most polluting in the world, after oil.
According to the United Nations Organization (UN), is responsible for 8% of greenhouse gases and 20% of total water waste globally.
And it is that just to produce some jeans, 7,500 liters of water.
In addition, today much of the clothing is made of polyester, a type of plastic resin that is obtained from petroleum, and that has great advantages over cotton: it is very cheap, weighs little, dries quickly and does not wrinkle.
The problem is that it takes more than 200 years to disintegrate, while cotton approximately 30 months.
And here, in the Atacama desert, most of the clothes are made, precisely, of polyester. Sports shirts, bathing suits or shorts look like new even though they’ve probably been in these mountains for months—or years.
But, over time, these garments will begin to wear out, releasing microplastics that are dispersed in the atmosphere, seriously affecting the fauna of the area and the sea.
Another thing that worries local authorities is the fires that are annually produced in these clandestine dumps.
“As there is no legal provision, the only solution is to burn it (the clothes). And smoke pollution is a big problem”, explains Edgard Ortega. “These clothes generate an annual fire of great proportions, which last between 2 and 10 days,” he adds.
According to the environment department of the Tarapacá region, the smoke can generate heart diseasesrrespiratory among the inhabitants who live around, most of them illegal immigrants who settle in makeshift houses in poor condition.
“There are populations that live inside this dump, they are directly inhaling these gases that are produced, cardiorespiratory diseases can be generated,” he says Gerson Ramos, in charge of waste from the regional environment secretary.
Being in the dumps, it is common to find immigrants who dig through the clothes to get something to wear or earn a few coins with their resale.
“Since they cannot work formally, they look for clothes in these macro dumps and sell them at a minimum cost. And that creates a problem for us because the garbage is dispersed even more,” says Ortega.
“Poor people pay the piper for this business model that no one wants to take responsibility for”, he adds.
The clothing problem in the Atacama desert is not new.
Textile waste has been accumulating in this iconic place for at least 15 years, although now its proportion is much higher, affecting a total of 300 hectares, according to the environment secretary of the Tarapacá region.
The solution, however, is not simple.
At the moment, there are two plans underway: a program to eradicate clandestine dumps and the incorporation of used clothing into the Extended Producer Responsibility Law (REP), which establishes an obligation for companies that import to take care of their waste.
However, there are still important steps to take for both plans to become a reality: in the case of the first, it must still be approved by the regional governor, and in the case of the second, a decree must still be drawn up that will establish that obligation.
“It is not easy to reconcile so many interests to be able to come up with a definitive solution, such as prohibiting the entry of used clothing, that is not feasible,” he says. Moyra Rojas, regional secretary of the environment of the Tarapacá region.
In addition, the lack of inspection and control in the area makes it very easy to throw clothes in illegal dumps.
“Alto Hospicio is a vulnerable commune, which has a very low budget. We can’t hire more inspectors, they don’t give us the resources,” explains Ortega.
“No one wants to live in a dump”
Given the real lack of solutions—and the indiscriminate rise of so-called “fast fashion”—clothes continue to accumulate in this inhospitable desert every day.
Worn out dolls and children’s games hidden among the mountains of the desert show the passage of time and, in some way, the abandonment of an area far from developed countries from where much of the clothes that are thrown here come from.
“No one wants to live in a dump,” says Ferreira.
“And unfortunately we have transformed our city into the dump of the world”, he concludes.
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