Atacama: from the desert of death to the desert of life

A company in Chile has a project that transforms textile industrial waste into thermal insulation panels for social housing and for low-income families and individuals. It is a “seed” that, in order to germinate, needs the contribution of each of us in an attempt to preserve our common home. According to Franklin Zepeda there is only one solution: consume less

By Bianca Fraccalvieri

"The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish". (Laudato si', 21)

This excerpt from Pope Francis' encyclical fully represents what happened in the Atacama Desert in Chile, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2000. A wonder for the thousands of tourists who visit every month: 1600 sq km of splendour and golden dunes that touch the sky. And yet in Alto Hospicio, a municipality in the Iquique region 1800 km from the capital Santiago, new dunes have formed that have nothing to do with sand. They are hills of unsold clothes from all over the world. They are not biodegradable, so they take up to 200 years to decompose; they are also full of toxins and dyes and could cause an unprecedented environmental disaster.

Mounds of discarded clothes
Mounds of discarded clothes

The fast fashion phenomenon

In recent times, retail shops selling clothes at low, and very low prices, have unfortunately become the norm. They are so cheap that at the first stain, tear or simply because they have fallen from favour, people have no qualms about throwing them away. It is a phenomenon known as “fast fashion” that contemplates the production, consumption and discarding at a rapid, almost compulsive pace of clothes of all kinds and for all ages. The question is: where do so many goods end up? And what are the consequences for the environment? The need to dispose of this waste has created a new industry, with companies specialising in buying used clothes. But not all countries have yet legalised the import of these materials. In Latin America, Chile is one of the few exceptions. Companies select the best pieces for resale and what cannot be reused ends up in illegal dumps. Within the country, the city with the greatest tax benefits, partly due to its geographical location - it is close to the sea - is Iquique, which is a free trade zone.

Damage to the environment caused by discarding garments
Damage to the environment caused by discarding garments

Steps forward

It is here that we have seen in past years, thanks to investigative reports, the scandal, the degradation, the wounds inflicted on the Atacama dunes. Fortunately, however, before the situation could degenerate further, the authorities intervened, cleaning up the largest dump created in the desert. However, according to data from a ministerial secretariat, there are still 52 'micro-dumps' in the region. The good news is that importers have pledged to introduce better quality fabrics, so as to avoid a surplus of products, and Decree 189 of the Chilean Ministry of Health prohibits disposal in landfills.

This is the context in which the company EcoFibra, whose CEO is Franklin Zepeda-López, started operating eight years ago. The work of this company is totally eco-friendly, consisting in collecting clothes, sorting them and then transforming them into heat-insulating panels for civil construction, used in designing social housing. These panels are a kind of a blanket, inserted inside the walls to insulate against cold or heat. Zepeda founded EcoFibra in 2018 specifically to tackle a largely ignored environmental disaster, starting with the Atacama landfills. "When I came up with the idea, I wanted to stop being part of the problem and start being the solution," he explains to Vatican News and L’Osservatore Romano. Incidentally, while some of the dramatic implications of rampant fashion-related consumerism - such as child labour and inhuman conditions in factories in many Asian countries - are well documented, the environmental cost of so-called “fast fashion” is less publicised and less known. The truth, however, is that “fast fashion”, in addition to polluting land, uses an enormous amount of water, something like 7500 litres for a pair of jeans, according to a recent UN report, which is the equivalent amount of water the average person drinks in seven years. In total, UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, estimates that the fashion industry uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water every year, enough to quench the thirst of five million people. When we think of industries that are having a detrimental effect on the environment, energy, transport, even food production come to mind, but it is actually the fashion industry that is considered the second most polluting in the world, after oil. There is the need for a model that does not compromise ethical, social and environmental values and involves customers, rather than encouraging them to binge on ever-changing trends. Instead of changing our wardrobes according to the whims of “fast fashion”, we consumers should change our mindsets so as to discourage certain phenomena. The UN has also estimated that “fast fashion” results in about half a million tonnes of microfibres ending up in the oceans each year, the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil.

Transforming recycled clothes into heat insulation panels for constriction
Transforming recycled clothes into heat insulation panels for constriction

Environmentally sustainable and humane construction

“In Chile, as in the rest of the world,” the CEO explains, “thermal insulation is for the rich, because it is very expensive. So the quality of life of the poorest is low, because they suffer a lot from the cold in winter and feel suffocating heat in summer, especially in the north of the country”. EcoFibra's action, therefore, has a threefold impact: firstly on the environment, because it acts by practically cleaning the territory of dangerous pollutants; then on the social level, because it entails improving the quality of life of people in vulnerable situations; and finally on the economy, because it promotes job creation and boosts the economy of the region, one of the poorest in Chile. When the work began, the entrepreneur says they went directly to the dump to manually separate the clothes, “now there is an agreement with the importer and the truck unloads directly at the company. This is certainly a good way to reduce environmental damage, but it is not enough. Zepeda-López has no doubt: consuming less is the solution.

Ecological conversion

"We have to consume less or consumerism will kill us and the planet," Zepeda reiterates, "we have to become aware that every gift purchase will reach a landfill or be burnt and this is contaminating the earth, our seas, waters with microplastics and now even deserts like the Atacama Desert. For the CEO, it is about controlling an impulse "that comes from the head, to have the best gift to give to friends, the most beautiful dress to show off on any occasion, this is the temptation of consumption". In this, Pope Francis' Laudato si' comes to our aid, says Zepeda: "What better message than that of the Pope who invites us to ecological conversion, to care for the environment and for people, all of them, but especially the fragile ones, restoring dignity to them; to care for water, which is a common good and which cannot be wasted to produce clothes if it can instead quench the thirst of those who die of drought. The Pope often repeats: now is the time to act, because if we don't do it now, we won't have a home to leave to our children, let alone our grandchildren!" Today the Atacama desert is clean, those mountains of clothes are no more and the new life of this place is thanks to companies like Ecofibra, not only because it has cleaned up the dunes restoring them to their former splendour, but because with the collected waste, it can offer a blanket every day to those who may not even have anything to wear. 

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08 February 2023, 17:18