The dirty secret of unwanted fashion – when the landfill meets your dress

The dirty secret of unwanted fashion – when the landfill meets your dress

 Image of clothing waste on the beach

This week we would like to talk about the very serious effects of the overconsumption of clothes and the fast fashion industry, which brings tremendous consequences to the wellbeing of people, animals and the planet. Thousands of tons of discarded clothes are piling up in African and Latin American countries, tainting their soil, oceans and geologic wonderlands with landfills of garments that could never be sold or donated to charity.
The source of the problem

Tons of unsold items of clothing from Europe, Asia and USA, many of which still with tags, are being transported to gateways of Port Tema in Ghana or tax-free paradise of Iquique port in Chile, for resale purposes.

The clothing usually comes from the Fast-Fashion retailers and is made of cheap materials, often highly chemicaland synthetic, which results in the decomposition process taking up to 200 years. The UK alone contributes to over 13 million of clothing items being thrown away each week! It is worth adding that not only new clothes end up being discarded, but also those coming from the second-hand market. Due to the overwhelming quantities of the clothes being donated, charity shops are unable to handle them, ultimately resulting in the donations ending up in the bin….that is the Atacama Desert or the suburbs of Ghana’s capital. Only around 50% of the donated clothes actually end up in charity shops, meaning that the clothes we often hope to give second life to…actually end up being thrown away anyway

Extremely poor quality of the majority of the discarded items, often severely damaged, makes it impossible for the clothing to be resold, with only the best piecesmaking it to the markets that still continue to struggle to match the supplywith the demand. It is estimated that no more than 40% of the discarded items are being resold, with the remaining 60% forming the massive landfills full of garment.

West Africa constitutes one of the biggest markets for second-hand clothing, with 15 million of clothing pieces arriving each week to the region, followed by Latin America and Eastern Europe including countries such as Poland or Ukraine. The biggest landfills of clothes can be found in Ghana, Gambia and Cameroon and can be as high as10 metres with some of them reaching the residential areas.

Image of landfill at the beach

"Of the 180 light summer jackets, 85 pieces were unsalable: collars ringed with sweat, buttons missing, and bloodstains on the sleeve.”

                        Emmanuel Ajaab - Ghanian clothing importer. 

The reports of the local organizations confirm that the landfills of garments are buried in the sand orare subjected to big burnouts, with one burning episode in Ghana lasting aslong as 11 months!  The toxicity of the non-biodegradable materials the clothes are made of, as well as the chemicals used to create the prints, contribute to the pollution of the air, ground andeven water around the affected areas.

In Ghana, during the monsoon season,tropical storms wash the clothes into the network of open sewers, laterresulting in drainage systems being blocked, causing the flooding and contamination. What is more, beaches in the area of Accra, the capital of Ghana, can be seen flooded with the clothing returned from the Atlantic Ocean, which travelled through the open sewers. Both beaches and the ocean are visibly filled with long chains of clothing floating or lying around, tangled in labels and killing the marine life. 

 Image of: organic clothing collection made by Organique, a sustainable fashion brand.

What can we do?

Buying less and stopping the destructive circle of overconsumption by changing the shopping habits is the necessary change that has to be made in order to stop or limit the negative consequences brought by the fast-fashion industry. Worldwide clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years, so it is in our power, as consumers, to control our shopping urges and  treat clothing donations as a last resort.

Remember, the chances for your dress to end up in a landfill next to someone's backyard, are high. 

‘It is easily dismissed as stuff the bin men take away, or that we send to charity shops, but it all goes away somewhere — and that somewhere can be the middle of the Atacama Desert.’ - Carry Somers - Fashion Revolution Activist

Author: Agata Parylak

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