Used clothing dump: the fashion cemetery in the desert

Alto Hospicio (Chile) – This place is anything but attractive.

Hundreds of thousands of sorted out pants, T-shirts, shirts, socks cover the dusty ground in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Second-hand clothing that is no longer needed in the deserted wasteland far from civilization.

The clothing cemetery in the desert!

Produced in China, consumed in Europe and disposed of in Chile? Thousands of tons of second-hand clothes arrive in Chile every year, 40 percent are sorted out and end up in the driest desert in the world. A gigantic mountain of clothing grows there.

Can you still use anything? A local inspects things that have been thrown awayPhoto: Matias Delacroix / AP

Reason: Chile is one of the largest importers of used clothes in Latin America. In the nearby free trade zone of Iquique this year, 29,178 tons of used clothing arrived by October, according to the managing director of the association of local entrepreneurs, Darío Blanco, of the German press agency.

The goods are unloaded in bales at the port. About 50 importers sell the best pieces from it, the others – an estimated 40 percent – sort them out. “This clothing is disposed of in the mountains of our community,” says Alto Hospicios environmental officer Edgar Ortega of the dpa.

Up to 20 tons of old clothes end up in this unique natural paradise every day, something that has been going on for years. The biggest challenge for the fashion industry is the amount of waste that is generated by fast fashion, according to a statement from the environmental protection organization Greenpeace. The residents of Alto Hospicio see themselves as the end of a chain that produces in China, consumes in Europe or the USA and dumps in Chile.

Chile is a major importer of used clothing.  What can no longer be sold ends up in the desert

Chile is a major importer of used clothing. What can no longer be sold ends up in the desertPhoto: Matias Delacroix / AP

According to Ortega, the city is financially and personally barely able to prevent the unloading, let alone clear up the landfill. Just five inspectors would try to catch those who dump their old clothes in the desert. “The problem arises much earlier,” says Ortega. Because clothing from other countries is not declared as textile waste, it is not clear how the sorted out imported goods should be disposed of. “As long as that is not resolved, we will not change the situation.”

At Alto Hospicio, if clothing is set on fire to make room, the environment is also polluted. “It’s usually one big fire every year,” says environmental officer Edgar Ortega. The fire brigade tried to extinguish it with water, but the fire continued to smolder for days.

Environmentalists are concerned about the wild old clothes dump

Environmentalists are concerned about the wild old clothes dump Photo: Antonio Cossio / dpa

All of this may not really fit in with Chile, which is progressive in many ways in Latin America, has said goodbye to plastic bags in shops, for example, or has a recycling law modeled on Europe. It obliges companies to take care of the rubbish they generate. In Alto Hospicio, for example, a working group was set up with the Ministry of the Environment to include used clothing in this law.

The company Ecofibra in Alto Hospicio is already making insulation material from old clothes. So far it can process three tons a day. Blanco envisions the importers, for example, to provide more machines for Ecofibra or to look for other alternatives. “One thing is clear: you have to take care of what is left over, you can’t just throw it away.”


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