A Mountain of Used Clothes Appeared in Chile’s Desert. Then It Went Up in Flames

A Mountain of Used Clothes Appeared in Chile’s Desert. Then It Went Up in Flames

As Bloomberg reported in May, New York, California, Sweden, and the Netherlands are developing legislation similar to Chile’s extended producer responsibility law that went into effect this year, mandating that the fashion industry fund recycling programs via tariffs calibrated to the quantity of garments produced.

In order to help New York City uphold its existing law limiting or forbidding textiles in the waste stream, FabScrap, a nonprofit founded in 2016 by a former New York Department of Sanitation worker, receives 7,000 pounds of preconsumer textile waste each week. Sorted by volunteers, the nonsynthetic scrap items are sent to a New Jersey facility that shreds the material, producing “shoddy,” a stuffing used to fill punching bags, sofas, and soft toys.

A Czech company called RETEX has been attempting to bring its fabric-macerating technology to Alto Hospicio. Blanco says that in exchange for securing a contract with Chile, the company promised to hire local workers. But, Blanco admitted, negotiations like these have fallen through in the past. For example, he said, a Spain-based company, Egreen, planned to open a fabric-waste processing plant, but the deal was scrapped late last year.

The governor’s sustainability adviser at the Regional Government of Tarapaca, Pablo Zambra, recently formed a 25-member committee that includes stakeholders such as Astudillo and Barria from Dress Desert and Morán, the president of the Tarapacá Recyclers, to publicize economic incentives for circular economy initiatives. Collectively, they hope RETEX will succeed in doing what Zepeda’s company failed to do: turn a profit. As of this writing, no importers are involved.

Meanwhile, every day, container ships continue to offload more cargo.

In the fall of 2022, Alto Hospicio’s mayor, Ferreira, acknowledged the unsolved problem but blamed clothing manufacturers, citing a “lack of global awareness of ethical responsibility.”

“Our land has been sacrificed,” he said.

Pino agrees that the fashion industry and its consumers are culpable. “We have to worry about the complete cycle: before, during, and after our clothes,” she wrote in an editorial published in 2021.

She believes a more comprehensive solution is necessary, including regulating the entry of textile materials to Chile, educating consumers about prolonging garments’ lives, promoting Chile’s homegrown fashion industry, and supporting research to design new uses for fabric waste.

Ecocitex, founded in 2020 by engineer Rosario Hevia in Santiago, has sprung up as another Chilean company addressing a surfeit of garments.

Ecocitex operates in a manner contrary to the country’s organized and informal secondhand clothes markets. It invites people to recycle high-quality clothing or pay $1.50 per kilogram to leave poor-quality clothing and walk away empty-handed.

Bastián Barria, cofounder of the organization Dress Desert with Ángela Astudillo, recently joined a government-sponsored committee to help push forward circular economy initiatives in Chile.

Photograph: Fernando Alarcón/Grist

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