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Atacama Desert, where fast fashion meets a slow death

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A huge heap of unworn clothing is piling up in Chile’s Atacama Desert. An estimated 39,000 tons of clothes that can’t be sold in the US or Europe end up in Chile yearly. The clothes occupy a large stretch of the desert, blanketing dunes in a sea of unwanted fast fashion. 

The vast mound of clothes, according to Agence France-Presse, consists of garments created in China and Bangladesh that find their way to stores in the United States, Europe, and Asia. When the clothing is not purchased, they are transported to the port of Iquique in Chile, where they are resold to other Latin American countries. 

According to AFP, roughly 59,000 tonnes of garments arrive at the Chilean port every year. At least 39,000 tonnes of it are dumped in desert landfills. 

Alex Carreno, a former employee at the Iquique port’s import section, told AFP the clothing “arrives from all over the world.” Carreno added that most of the clothes are later disposed off when the shipments can’t be resold across Latin America. 

The clothes brought to the desert heaps for disposal now blanket an entire swathe of land in the Atacama Desert in Alto Hospicio, Chile. 

“The problem is that the clothing is not biodegradable and has chemical products, so it is not accepted in the municipal landfills,” said Franklin Zepeda, founder of EcoFibra, a company that is trying to make use of the discarded clothing by making insulation panels out of it. 

Since 2018, Zepeda’s company has used textile waste to make thermal and acoustic building insulators, and he told the AFP that he wanted to “stop being the issue and start being the solution.” 

While fast fashion is inexpensive, it is extremely damaging to the environment. For one thing, according to the United Nations, the fashion business comprises 8 to 10% of global carbon emissions. In 2018, it was discovered that the fashion sector uses more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. Every second, the equivalent of a garbage truck’s worth of clothing is burned and dumped, according to researchers. 

And the rate at which people buy clothes in the twenty-first century does not appear to have slowed. Clothing production doubled between 2004 and 2019, according to statistics from the Ellen McArthur Foundation, a UK-based think tank and circular-economy organization. Perhaps it’s time we pump the brakes on fast fashion and rampant consumerism, and put the planet first.

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