While the fast fashion industry continues to proliferate – its market size increasing by $106.4 billion in 2023 alone – so too is a behemoth landfill site taking the seize of Chile’s Atacama desert. The fetid mountain comprises 60,000 tonnes of discarded clothing and it can now be observed from space. See here, a high-resolution satellite image proves just how expansive the dumpsite has become in comparison to the neighboring city of Iquique and its population of 191,468. Situated one mile from Iquique’s most deprived districts, the Atacama landfill has created so much waste that the United Nations has labeled the site “an environmental and social emergency” for the planet.
Some 59,000 tonnes of clothing from Europe, Asia, and North America arrive in northern Chile each year. Much of this is purchased for the second-hand trade, but everything that cannot be sold ends up in noxious rubbish dumps like this one, releasing harmful pollutants into the air and underground water channels. Part of the problem is that Iquique is one of several tax-free zones in Chile – there are no tariffs, taxes, or customs-related fees – meaning importers would rather jettison unwanted clothing than shoulder the costs of transporting it out of the region. A 2016 law holds merchants accountable for waste, but that does not include textiles and so it’s easier to abandon the product in gargantuan piles – which are as toxic as discarded tires or plastic and will take 200 years to biodegrade.
Only 15 per cent of the clothes that come through the Iquique port are second-hand, which means the remaining 85 per cent of garments have never been worn. Another issue is that the Atacama desert is one of the driest in the world – so much so that the European Space Agency and NASA have used the location as a stand-in for Mars – and local communities have suffered week-long wildfires. In June 2022, this caused an unprecedented catastrophe as toxic gases from synthetic fibers were emitted into the atmosphere, contaminating Iquique’s surroundings and forcing citizens to stay indoors. Government officials have yet to prevent further outbreaks and it seems unlikely that Atacama will shrink in size when a rubbish truck’s worth of clothing continues to arrive at landfill every second.
Click here to read about the positive steps the fashion industry has been making towards sustainability.