Textile waste in the desert: The reality of ‘zero waste’ promises

In a dusty yard on the edge of the desert around 100 miles from Expo City Dubai, the venue for COP28, 20 tonnes of textile waste is perishing, clothes spilling out of plastic wrapped bales, being whipped by the sand and bleached by the sun. Its presence underscores the challenges facing the fashion industry when it comes to collecting, sorting and recycling unwanted clothing — and the emptiness of some companies’ “zero waste to landfill” promises.

The waste came to the attention of Dubai-based sustainability expert Anita Nouri in early October, after she received a call asking for her help in tackling it. (Nouri has chosen to protect the caller’s identity to shield them from any repercussions.) The waste’s exact origins are unknown. But this isn’t unusual for a global trade that excels in transporting used or unwanted clothes from one market to another without assigning responsibility to anyone — whether brands, retailers or exporters — for what happens to them.

With no one responsible for overseeing or ensuring integrity in the management of garment and textile waste globally, there’s also no clear strategy or solution — nor funding to implement any would-be solution — for what to do with it.

The UAE is one of the world’s top importers of used clothing, according to the OEC, and there are more than 40 “multidisciplinary free zones” in the country: areas where foreign investors can have full ownership of their companies and are now known as hotspots for the importation of secondhand clothing due to financial exemptions and independent regulations. Free zones have led to problems with waste in other countries and in Chile’s Atacama Desert, some 60,000 tonnes of textile waste has accumulated — the unsellable remnants of what’s imported via the Alto Hospicio free zone.

It’s a growing problem. “Between 2000 and 2022, global fibre production has grown from 58 million tonnes to 116 million tonnes, so we’re consuming a lot more clothing and disposing of it much quicker in greater volumes, and we don’t have the scaled infrastructure to deal with it,” says Dr Patsy Perry, a reader in fashion marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University. “When it’s exported, it’s out of sight out of mind.”


Unlike household waste, which is more likely to be collected and processed by local authorities — particularly in the Global North — no one is directly responsible for collecting or processing textile waste. In the void created by this lack of either accountability or centralised infrastructure, a fragmented system of collection, sorting and recycling has emerged, says Megan Stoneburner, fibres and materials director at Textile Exchange.


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