The heat is exhausting. All around me is dirt, sand and a few birds of prey that circle through the air in search of dead animals. The silence is heartbreaking.
It’s 11 am on a Monday in December. I am in the immense Atacama Desert, in northern Chile, at the height of the city of Iquique — located 1,800 km from the capital Santiago.
A few meters away I can see a huge mountain. We’re getting closer little by little on an improvised path with no trail marks.
The image is getting sharper and clearer. Shoes, t-shirts, coats, dresses, hats, bathing suits and even snow gloves make up this amazing mountain.
In Chile, the Atacama Desert is home to a toxic waste dump of 1st world fashion
They are pieces inexplicably abandoned in the middle of the desert. It is clothing discarded by the United States, Europe and Asia, sent to Chile to be resold.
Of the 59,000 tonnes imported every year, a large part (some 40,000 tonnes) is not sold — it ends up in the trash.
Most are in the vicinity of Alto Hospicio, a community with high levels of poverty and vulnerability.
In November, images of this dump went around the world. We wanted to go there to find out in depth what is happening.
How does the used clothing market work?
It is estimated that 300 hectares of the Atacama Desert are covered by garbage — Photo: Nicolás Vargas/BBC
Trucks loaded with bales of used clothing enter and leave the Iquique Free Trade Zone, better known as Zofri.
This shopper’s paradise is home to an immense industrial park where over a thousand companies operate that sell their products tax-free.
Its strategic location in northern Chile – just a few kilometers from the port of Iquique – makes the area an important commercial center for other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia.
Here, there are at least 50 importers who receive dozens of tons of second-hand parts daily, which are then distributed throughout Chile for resale.
The business is huge and completely legal. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), a platform that records various economic activities around the world, Chile is the largest importer of used clothing in South America, receiving 90% of this type of merchandise in the region.
Chile is the largest importer of used clothing in South America, receiving 90% of this type of merchandise in the region — Photo: Nicolás Vargas/BBC
The owners of the importers have different nationalities: some are from distant countries like Pakistan.
With a precarious command of Spanish, many refuse to talk about it. “Nobody wants to be responsible”, says one of the importers.
After several attempts, the founder of PakChile, Paola Laiseca, explains to BBC Mundo how the business works.
“We bring in clothes from the United States, but it also comes from Europe,” she says, sitting in the office of a huge warehouse where loads of second-hand items are piled up.
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Most of these clothes were donated to charitable organizations in developed countries. Many go to distribution sites or are given to people in need.
But what is not used (by default in the piece, for example) goes to countries like Chile, India or Ghana.
Used clothes arrive in bags and are selected in the free zone for resale throughout Chile — Photo: Fernanda Paúl/BBC
Laiseca explains that pieces of different qualities arrive at the port of Iquique.
“Used clothes come in bags and here we make a selection divided into first, second and third categories.”
“The first is the best pieces, without defects, without stains, impeccable. The second can have dirty or unsewn pieces. In the third there are more deteriorated products”, he explains.
The businesswoman says that third-rate pieces are indeed sold (and that she only discards 1% of everything imported). But local authorities heard by BBC Mundo claim that a large part ends up in clandestine dumps.
“It is known that at least 60% [do que se importa] it’s waste or disposable and that’s what makes up the piles of garbage”, says Edgard Ortega, responsible for the environment in the municipality of Alto Hospicio.
In Chile it is forbidden to discard textiles even in legal deposits because it causes soil instability. Thus, in theory, there is no place to throw away what is not commercialized.
Most of what is imported ends up being discarded in clandestine dumps — Photo: Fernanda Paúl/BBC
Laiseca recognizes that there are people who receive money to discard clothes that are not sold.
According to Patricio Ferreira, mayor of Alto Hospicio, importers in the free zone “hire truck drivers or a collection truck and pay them to leave them anywhere.”
Carmen García, who came from the small town of Colchane, buys clothes from importers to resell at the huge fair of La Quebradilla, in Alto Hospicio. You can find brands like H&M, Pepe Jeans, Wrangler and Nike.
The prices are incredibly low: for less than $1 you can buy a shirt or pants.
“Everything you see here comes from Zofri,” she says, showing her tent with racks full of clothes.
The fair in La Quebradilla, where the pieces are resold — Photo: Fernanda Paúl/BBC
García says he buys everything by the bag, with no guarantee of what’s inside.
“With luck, you do well. But there are times when everything ends up in the trash”, he says.
When asked where this outfit will end up, she says, without giving too many details, that the pieces are donated to people in need.
The fashion industry is among the most polluting in the world, after the oil industry.
According to the United Nations (UN), it is responsible for 8% of greenhouse gases and 20% of water waste in the world.
It takes about 7,500 liters of water to produce a piece of jeans.
In various parts of the Atacama Desert, burned clothes can be found — Photo: Nicolás Vargas/BBC
In addition, much of the clothing is filled with polyester, a type of plastic resin derived from petroleum that offers great advantages over cotton: it is cheaper, weighs little, dries quickly and does not wrinkle.
The problem is that it takes 200 years to disintegrate – cotton takes 2 and a half years.
And here, in the Atacama Desert, most of the pieces are filled with polyester. Sports T-shirts, bathing suits, or shorts gleam like new, but they’ve probably been in the garbage piles for months or years.
Over time, the clothes wear out and release microplastics that end up in the atmosphere, strongly affecting the marine or terrestrial fauna in the vicinity.
Another thing that worries the authorities are the fires that occur annually in clandestine dumps.
“As there is no legal device, the only solution is to burn [a roupa]. And smoke pollution is a big problem”, explains Eduardo Ortega. “Annual fires of great proportions are set off, which last between two and ten days.”
People live in clothing dumps and inhale toxic gases — Photo: Fernanda Paúl/BBC
According to the environmental department of the Tarapacá region, the smoke can cause cardiorespiratory diseases in residents of areas close to the dumps, most of them illegal immigrants who settle in makeshift houses in disrepair.
“There are populations that live in these dumps, which directly inhale the gases produced and are subject to cardiorespiratory diseases”, says Gerson Ramos, responsible for waste at the regional secretary for the environment.
In these warehouses it is common to find immigrants who dig into the mountains of clothes to find a piece to wear or earn some coins with resale.
“As they cannot work formally, they look for parts in the dumps to sell for a minimum price. And this creates a problem because the garbage is dispersed even more”, says Ortega.
“The poor pay the price for this business model that nobody wants to take responsibility for”, he says.
The clothing problem in the Atacama Desert is not new.
Textile waste has been piling up in this iconic place for nearly 15 years., but now the problem has reached gigantic proportions, affecting 300 hectares (some 420 soccer fields) in the region, according to the Tarapacá environment secretary.
The solution, however, is not simple.
There are currently two plans underway: a program to eradicate clandestine dumps and the incorporation of used clothing into the Extended Producer Responsibility Law, which establishes obligations for importing companies.
But important steps are still missing for the plans to be put into practice: in the case of the first, the approval of the regional governor is required and, in the case of the second, it is still necessary to prepare the regulatory decree.
Atacama Desert has become a textile industry dump — Photo: Nicolás Vargas/BBC
“It is not easy to reconcile so many interests for a broad and incisive solution, such as banning the entry of used clothes, this is not feasible”, says Moyra Rojas, secretary of environment for the Tarapacá region.
The lack of inspection and control in the area makes it very easy to dispose of parts in illegal warehouses.
“Alto Hospicio is a vulnerable area, which has a very low budget. We cannot hire more inspectors, we do not receive resources”, says Ortega.
Nobody wants to live in a dump
With the lack of real solutions – and the indiscriminate rise of the so-called “fast fashion” – clothes continue to accumulate every day in this inhospitable desert.
Old dolls and children’s games hidden among the mountains of the desert evidence the passage of time and, somehow, the abandonment of an area far from developed countries – where much of the discarded clothing here comes from.
“Nobody wants to live in a dump”, says Ferreira.
“And unfortunately, we have turned our city into the world’s garbage dump”, he concludes.