Jan 27, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Your old T-shirt may be in a Chilean desert

Tons of discarded clothing are piled up on a Chilean desert as a car drives through a dirt road
Piles of thrown-out clothes from Europe, Asia and the U.S. ended up in a Chilean desert. Photo: Martín Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

Chile’s Atacama Desert has become a clothing graveyard, with around 35,000 tons of unsold second-hand clothing getting dumped there every year. A handful of organizations are working to reduce and reuse the polluting fabrics.

What's happening: It starts when used clothing from the U.S, Europe and Asia arrives at Iquique, a tax-free port near the desert, for resale in Chile and other Latin American countries.

  • The unsold stuff — 60% of 59,000 tons — ends up in a desert landfill, according to environmental groups.
  • The fabrics could take up to 200 years to decompose because they are mostly synthetic and treated with chemical dyes, the groups say.

Details: Local circular economy companies Ecocitex and EcoFibra are fighting the problem by taking the discarded clothing from the desert and giving it new life.

  • Women-led Ecocitex uses the clothes to make new materials such as yarn and wool hats. It also donates some garments to migrant and homeless communities.
  • EcoFibra grinds the clothing into tiny pieces, then uses that for heat and sound insulation panels, which can be recycled.

Don’t forget: The fashion industry produces higher carbon emissions yearly than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the UN.

  • The UN pins most of the blame on "fast fashion:" brands that sell short-lived collections in bulk and made with cheap materials, which wear down faster and are discarded more quickly.

Of note: Chile and Guatemala are the Americas’ biggest importers of used clothes, according to MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity.

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