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Before You Go Shopping for New Clothes, Take a Look at This Toxic Desert of Used Clothing in Northern Chile

Toxic desert of used clothing Chile BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Antonio Cossio/dpa.

Before you click on the ad that appears on the web, before you pay attention to that newsletter that promises you the best looks for spring, take a look at this desert.

It is a clandestine dump of tons of used clothes that end up abandoned in the arid lands of the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile.

As if it were a post-apocalyptic scenario, the mountains of used clothing from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia find their final destination in the driest desert in the world.

The clothes, which were discarded for resale, ended up in this open-air dump, emitting toxic gases as they decomposed, reported Spanish newspaper El País.

That clandestine dump has been rising from the discards of the 59,000 tons of clothing that arrive each year in Chile — Latin America’s leading importer of second-hand garments — through the free trade zone at the port of Iquique, 1,800 kilometers north of Santiago. Most are used items, but there are also some unworn ones with the sale tag still attached.

This clothing desert is also the destination of thousands of people searching for clothes to wear or resell and make a living.

“We have transformed our city into the garbage dump of the world,” Patricio Ferreira, mayor of Alto Hospicio, the commune where the vast majority of the dumps are located, told the BBC.

Most of this clothing has previously been donated to charities in developed countries. Much of it is resold in charity stores or given to people in need.

But what is not sold or donated in those countries (sometimes because it is damaged) ends up being sent to other countries such as Chile, India, or Ghana, the BBC continued.

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries globally, after oil.

This industry is responsible for 8% of greenhouse gases and 20% of total global water waste. Just think that it takes 7,500 liters of water to produce a pair of jeans.

In addition, most clothing is currently made of polyester, a type of plastic resin obtained from petroleum, which has great advantages over cotton: it is very economical, weighs little, dries quickly, and does not wrinkle.

The problem is that it takes more than 200 years to disintegrate, while cotton takes about 30 months.

Although the issue of the clothing dump in the Atacama is not new — textile waste has been accumulating in the desert for at least 15 years — the solution is far from simple.

Between companies that do not take responsibility for their waste and the irresponsible consumption we make from our homes, the world does not seem to have enough natural mats to hide our garbage.

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