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Students happen upon alarming sight while approaching desert trash heap: 'Like a war'

"We have to worry about the complete cycle…"

"We have to worry about the complete cycle..."

Photo Credit: iStock

In one of the driest places on Earth, at least 11,000 tons of clothes were burned in a massive textile dump, spreading toxic fumes laced with chemicals from synthetic materials into northern Chile's Atacama Desert, as Grist reported

What happened? 

Ángela Astudillo, co-founder of textile recycling advocacy nonprofit Dress Desert, or Desierto Vestido, as well as Bárbara Pino, fashion professor and director of Santiago's Fashion System Observatory, and a few of Pino's students, witnessed the tragic aftermath of the charred textile landfill. 

They searched the pile for unscorched clothing, knowing pieces from brand names such as Adidas, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Banana Republic had been found at the dump before — some having never been worn.  

The Atacama's giant pile of discarded fabric was estimated to weigh up to 59,000 tons.

It was "like a war," Pino recounted to Grist, describing the waves of heat, black smoke, and smell of melting plastic at the smoldering landfill. 

Why is the textile fire so concerning?

Chile is the largest importer of used clothing in South America, and its port city Iquique has established tax-free zones, which only incentivize those bringing in unwanted or unsold clothing from places such as the United States, Europe, Korea, and Japan. 

Though no one knows exactly how much clothing comes through the port each year, estimates range from 60,000 to 44 million tons, per Grist, and, according to the global environmental advocacy group Ekō, about 85% of the used clothing brought into Iquique remains unsold. 

With reportedly no rainfall in over a decade in the immediate area, the region's dry conditions combined with the synthetic, petroleum-derived fibers that modern clothes are made from means that the pile is only growing more hazardous as more non-biodegradable clothing is thrown in. 

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester are derived from dirty energy sources and can take hundreds of years to decompose. During this lengthy process, they release methane — a potent gas that traps heat in the atmosphere — which contributes to the overheating of our planet. 

What's being done about the textile pollution in Chile? 

Chile's government voted to adopt recycling measures that will hold certain producers accountable for their waste, intending to incorporate clothing and textiles as a priority product, the country's Ministry of the Environment told Grist.

The Ministry of the Environment is also developing a circular economy strategy for textile waste, creating public policies to help prevent overproduction and holding workshops and conversations to collect input from academics, business executives, retailers, and nonprofit leaders.

By changing how we shop, forgoing fast fashion, and upcycling what we already have, we can all do our part to reduce the amount of fabric waste we produce. 

"We have to worry about the complete cycle: before, during, and after our clothes," Pino wrote in an editorial quoted by Grist, addressing the fashion industry and its consumers.

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