Chile’s Atacama Desert is a place of desolate beauty. Spanning 41,000 square miles, it is one of the most barren places on the planet.
Yet across the stony terrain, a new and unnatural feature has sprouted.
As these pictures show, there are now garish hills of piled-up discarded clothing — a towering testament to mankind’s excess.
Each year, 39,000 tons of unwanted clothes are thought to be sent from rich countries, including the UK, to the Atacama, such is our addiction to ‘fast fashion’.
When you tire of that £5 garment, this is where it may end up.
We throw away some 13 million items of clothing every week. And according to the sustainability charity WRAP, 70 per cent of our used clothing is sent overseas, making the UK the world’s second largest exporter of used clothing after the U.S.
Each year, 39,000 tons of unwanted clothes are thought to be sent from rich countries, including the UK, to the Atacama Desert in Chile
Aerial view of used clothes discarded in the Atacama Desert – an area spanning 41,000 square miles
Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of discarded clothes goes into landfill, where it can remain for 200 years. More than 336,000 tons goes to sites in the UK. But how does so much of it end up in the Atacama?
The desert is a short distance from the Chilean port city of Iquique, into which pours 60,000 tons of unwanted clothing, both new and second-hand, every year. It comes from all around the globe.
Many items are made in Bangladesh or China, then sent to Western High Streets and warehouses, often to be sold for just a few pounds.
When we throw them away, they eventually journey on to Iquique and other port cities in places including Ghana, India and Eastern Europe.
‘We send stuff off to landfill and it’s someone else’s backyard,’ says Orsola de Castro, co-founder of the not-for-profit global pressure group Fashion Revolution, which calls for greater transparency in the industry. ‘We are the first generation that doesn’t have a clear idea of what happens to their waste.
‘In the past, textile waste would have been handed down, repaired and repurposed before the last few scraps ended up in the bin, but that doesn’t happen now.’
The UK throws away some 13 million items of clothing every week and 70 per cent of it is sent overseas, according to sustainability charity WRAP
Men work at a factory that recycles used clothes discarded in the Atacama desert for wooden isolation panels for the walls of social housing
And the UK’s love affair with fast fashion creates a huge surplus of poor-quality garments. In 2019, we spent a record £61 billion on new outfits — the highest tally in Europe.
Worldwide, clothing production roughly doubled between 2000 and 2015, according to WRAP, while the average number of times a garment was worn before it was thrown away fell by 36 per cent.
While a lot of clothes are given to charity shops or put in recycling banks with the best intentions, the sheer quantities are too much for charities to deal with.
It has been estimated that only a little over half of all clothes donated to charity make it to the shop floor. Instead, many are sent abroad via second-hand dealers.
Clothes arrive in crates by the ton at Iquique, to be bought by textiles traders, sight unseen, in a kind of giant lucky dip.
Chile is one of the largest importers of used clothing in Latin America, and the best items received in Iquique will be sold on. But about 40 per cent can’t be resold or repurposed — hence the tidal wave of textile waste dumped in the desert.
A short distance from the dumping ground pictured here are shacks occupied mostly by Venezuelans — the desert is on a dangerous route for migrants looking to make a new life — who scour the dump for anything they can use or resell. Sometimes a garment will even be found with the price tag still on it. Among the items pictured here, one bears a label from TJ Maxx, the American sister of TK Maxx, with a price tag of $39.99.
Chile is one of the largest importers of used clothing in Latin America, and the best items received in Iquique will be sold on
But about 40 per cent can’t be resold or repurposed — hence the tidal wave of textile waste dumped in the desert
When reporters from the news agency AFP visited Atacama last year, they found two young Venezuelan women searching the dump for ‘things for the cold’ while their babies crawled in the detritus.
Garment hills such as this are often burned — there is usually one big fire a year, according to local reports. But whether clothes burn or are left to become buried in the sand, the environmental consequences are stark.
Many fast-fashion fabrics are non-biodegradable, and even natural fabrics such as cotton are often treated with chemical dyes. The toxic fumes from burning such clothes pollute both the air and the ground. In 2020, a European Parliament report said textile waste was responsible for 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as releasing half a million tons of microfibres into the ocean every year.
If the problem created by the growth of fast fashion has any solution, it is not yet apparent to people in Chile. Franklin Zepeda, the founder of a local firm called EcoFibra, which makes thermal insulation for housing by using recycled textiles, explains: ‘The problem is the clothes are not biodegradable and have chemicals in them, so they are not accepted in municipal landfills.’
In 2020, a European Parliament report said textile waste was responsible for 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as releasing half a million tons of microfibres into the ocean every year
This week Maisa Rojas, director of the Chilean Centre for Climate Science and Resilience, who is soon to be Chile’s environment minister, told the BBC: ‘Business people need to play their part and stop importing rubbish. But developed countries also need to take responsibility.
‘What’s happening here in Chile has environmental consequences for the whole planet.’
Two years ago, the Mail reported on a similar problem in Ghana, West Africa, where a 30ft-high mound of clothes had accumulated on the outskirts of the capital, Accra. Some items bore UK labels including Marks & Spencer.
A flourishing second-hand clothes market had existed in Ghana for more than a century but the recent surge in waste textiles had become close to overwhelming, as it has in other countries.
Liz Ricketts, of The OR Foundation, a non-profit organisation researching the impact of the second-hand clothing trade in Accra, explains: ‘Too much clothing is being manufactured because of fast fashion, and a lot of it isn’t made for a second life. Traders constantly say the fabric isn’t good quality. They can’t sell it, so it ends up being thrown away.’
Textile traders sort through our binned clothes. Some are deemed suitable for recycling, some go to landfill, some are sent to be burned and some are exported
Author Orsola De Castro urges us to buy fewer clothes and mend, resell or swap them more often, binning or donating them only as a last resort
Textile traders sort through our binned clothes. Some are deemed suitable for recycling, some go to landfill, some are sent to be burned and some are exported. The highest quality items go to Eastern Europe to be sold in shops, while the ‘B-grade’ bales go elsewhere.
Ghana is one of the biggest markets, followed by Poland, Nigeria and Ukraine. Globally, Chile is only seventh on the list.
Carry Somers, of Fashion Revolution, says the issue of textile waste has been ‘trivialised’.
‘It is easily dismissed as stuff the bin men take away, or that we send to charity shops,’ she says. ‘But it all goes away somewhere — and that somewhere can be the middle of the Atacama Desert.’
The only way to remedy that would be for us all to change our buying and disposing habits when it comes to clothes.
As Orsola de Castro says in her book Loved Clothes Last: ‘There is simply no more space for all these unwanted clothes, not in our wardrobes or in our world. If we combine all the landfills . . . vast swathes of our earth are being taken over by our clothes.’
De Castro urges us to buy fewer clothes and mend, resell or swap them more often, binning or donating them only as a last resort.
‘If we want to stop these images,’ she says, ‘it is in our power.’