Thousands of tons of old clothes end up in the Atacama Desert every year

updated

Atacama DesertThousands of tons of old clothes end up in the “backyard of the world” every year

The driest desert in the world has a huge garbage problem. Last year alone, 46,000 tons of used and unsold clothes from all continents landed in Chile.

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Chile has long been a hub for used and unsold clothing from Europe, Asia and the United States.

AFP

The clothes are either resold in Latin America or end up in desert dumps.

The clothes are either resold in Latin America or end up in desert dumps.

AFP

Last year alone, 46,000 tons of used and unsold clothes from all continents ended up in Chile - many of them in the unique ecosystem of the Atacama Desert.

Last year alone, 46,000 tons of used and unsold clothes from all continents ended up in Chile – many of them in the unique ecosystem of the Atacama Desert.

AFP

That’s what it’s about

  • In the Atacama Desert in Chile, waste is traded on a large scale.

  • Thousands of tons of old clothes and discarded cars and tires are piled up here.

  • Pollution, climate change and human settlement threaten the unique ecosystem.

For eight million years, the Atacama Desert has allowed an ecosystem unique in the world to thrive, now the driest desert on earth is not only dated lithium mining, but also threatened by the garbage trade. Mountains of old clothes and shoes and never-ending rows of discarded tires and junk cars are already disfiguring several areas of the desert in northern Chile.

Trading point for used and unsold clothing

“We are no longer just the local backyard, we are the backyard of the world,” says Patricio Ferreira, mayor of Alto Hospicio, one of the poorest cities in the country.

Chile has long been a Trading point for used and unsold clothing from Europe, Asia and the United States, which is either resold in Latin America or left to rot in desert dumps. Because of the insatiable global urge for fast fashion, more than 46,000 tons of used clothes ended up in the Iquique free trade zone in northern Chile last year.

Chemicals pollute soil, air and groundwater

Old clothes are full of chemicals and take up to 200 years to break down, activists say. In this way they pollute the soil, the air and the groundwater. Sometimes the piles of clothes are set on fire to get rid of them faster.

“The material is highly flammable, the fires are toxic,” says lawyer Paulín Silva, who has filed a lawsuit with the country’s environmental court over the damage caused by the import of scrap and old clothes.

“We have to find those responsible”

“We have to find those responsible,” demands the 34-year-old activist as she stands in the middle of the heaps of old clothes. From their point of view, this is “an environmental risk, a danger to human health”.

For more than eight million years, the 100,000 square kilometer Atacama has been the driest desert in the world. It rarely rains, in some parts never. The district of Yungay near Antofagasta is the driest. Researchers have found extreme life forms here, microorganisms that have adapted to a virtually waterless environment with high levels of solar radiation and few nutrients.

NASA is testing robotic vehicles here

Scientists believe that research into these microorganisms will increase knowledge about evolution and survival on Earth and other planets. Nasa considers Yungay to be Earth’s most similar landscape to Mars and uses it to test its robotic vehicles.

Numerous colorful wildflower species, especially purple, bloom in a spectacular carpet of flowers every five to seven years when the rainfall is above average. Their seeds can survive in the sand for decades while waiting for a bare minimum of water.

“Got systematically worse in recent years”

It is an ecosystem that is “very vulnerable because any change or decrease in rainfall or fog has immediate consequences for the species that live there,” explains Pablo Guerrero, researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity (IEB). “There are cactus species that are thought to be extinct due to pollution, climate change and human settlement. Unfortunately, we see this on a large scale, and in recent years it has gotten systematically worse.”

Mayor Ferreira says: “We have the feeling that our country is being sacrificed.” He laments a “lack of global awareness, a lack of ethical responsibility” and adds: “These are unscrupulous people from all over the world who come here to dispose of their garbage.” He is helpless in the face of the problem. “We cleaned up once, but then they just leave their dirt a bit further.”

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(AFP/bre)

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