March 8, 2024

Clothing Dump in Atacama Desert, Chile - Fast Fashion & Waste Colonialism

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the world's largest dumping ground for textile waste, seemingly exacerbated by government inaction.

Clothing Dump in The Atacama Desert, Chile


The Atacama Desert in Chile is home to the world's largest textile landfill, where an estimated 44 million tons of clothing from the United States, Europe, and Asia are dumped each year. Some Chileans accuse their government of “inaction and negligence” for their lax import regulations on used clothing and tax-free zones favoring developed countries. This textile dump severely damages the local environment and poses significant health risks to the community.

Government-Sponsored Clothing Dump

Chile is the No 1 importer of second-hand clothing in South America. This is primarily due to their lack of regulations on second-hand clothing imports and tax-free commercial zones. The volume of clothes that arrive in ports such as Zofri and Inique are often of low-quality and from the US, Europe, and Asia. The Chilean government has been criticized for not taking adequate measures to manage or minimize the environmental impact of this issue.

More than half of the clothes that are imported to Chile annually end up in the Atacama Desert, where the local government lacks the resources or ownership to tackle the millions of tons of textile waste. The local government's inability to manage this situation exacerbates the environmental and health issues faced by the local community.

Public Health Impacts

The Atacama Desert clothing dump has vast negative community health impacts.  Alto Hospicio, a nearby city of around 100,000 people are surrounded by textile dumps, as well as other junkyards full of cars, torn wheels, and everyday waste. Alto Hospicio’s population is growing rapidly, mostly from migrants and people with very low economic or social mobility.

The residents are constantly exposed to hazardous chemicals and toxins from the dumped clothing, leading to a myriad of health problems such as respiratory conditions and skin diseases. The risk is particularly high for children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Additionally, the rapid population growth in the area further strains the already limited resources and exacerbates the waste management problem.

Environmental Impact

The dumped clothing, often made from synthetic materials such as polyester or rayon, takes hundreds of years to decompose, releasing harmful chemicals into the soil and water sources. This has devastating effects on the local ecosystem, including soil degradation, water pollution, and harm to local wildlife.

Burning of the clothing dumps can last for days, releasing toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases. These fires pose immediate health risks to local residents, causing respiratory problems and other health issues. The toxic chemicals released from the burned clothing dumps and the polluted water sources make their way into the food chain, contaminating local crops and livestock.

Waste pickers are forced to scavenge through the waste in hopes of finding salvageable items, being directly exposed to the hazardous waste, and increasing their risk of contracting various diseases.

Government Response and Community Solutions

Despite the mounting criticism, the Chilean government has yet to implement substantial changes to the import regulations and waste management strategies. There are nearly 60,0000 tons of tons imported annually into the country.

To tackle the growing issue, local communities and advocacy groups are stepping up. Ecofibra Chile, for example, has partnered with waste transporters to repurpose unwanted clothing into thermal insulation panels that can be used in various industries such as construction and mining.

However, these efforts can only go so far without government support and changes in the legal framework. The Chilean government must urgently address the import regulations and develop a sustainable waste management system to alleviate the environmental and health impacts caused by the vast textile landfill in the Atacama Desert.

The situation in Atacama is a stark reminder of the true cost of fast fashion and the global inequality embedded in our consumption patterns. It underscores the urgent need for systemic changes in the fashion industry, from production to disposal, and for stricter regulations on waste management.