Issue - August 2009

August 2009


Inside this edition: Satoshi Shibata tells us about Incallajta ruins and the Projects helping improve it; the dancers of Urkupina by Minato Kobori; Rachel Dakin questions the rise in production in the fashion industry; and finally Walter Sanchez with another story about the Rio more...

August 2009

Disposable Fashion

For us clothing is really very bad because we make clothes here. And used clothes can bring diseases. Sales are really down now, compared with before. Before I worked with 12 workers but now I only work with 3.

Rachel Dakin
Projects Abroad Volunteers
Leeds - United Kingdom

Its Monday morning and a brisk walk to the office as I’m already behind time. Traffic swells around Plaza Principal; horns blare in a raucous cacophony clashing against the familiar blasts of fireworks. There is another strike about “ropa usada”, the used clothes trade.

The argument over the prohibition of selling used clothes in Bolivia is becoming as recycled as the clothes themselves: the people want cheap designer clothes, the factories want a profit and the government wants to boost the economy. Despite all of these opinions bustling for attention there is one view that seems to be ignored. The Environment. If no one recycles used clothes, then they will surely fill yet another landfill site. The age old war: Economy against Environment.

An estimated 35,000 tons of used clothing crosses the Bolivian border each year, representing $34 million in sales. A remarkable 93% of that used clothing is contraband and crosses the border without tax. The Federation of Factory Workers reported that this activity has resulted in a loss of 56,000 jobs in Bolivian textile and clothing industries. Piles of discarded clothing donated to charity by wealthy countries choke the markets of less economically developed countries like Bolivia. The endless stalls of La Cancha spill through the streets of southern Cochabamba displaying the waste of nations filled with people obsessed with the latest obsession for disposable fashion.

It’s a business that President Evo Morales considers shameful within the context of his fight for a “Dignified Bolivia”, a cover-all phrase that he’s used since his electoral campaign. “It’s impossible to think that we can be dignified if, in the name of poverty, we wear clothing that has been thrown out in another country,” a Bolivian vice-minister told the Associated Press in 2007. In April, Bolivia became the 32nd nation to ban or restrict used clothing imports in an attempt to protect native clothing industries. This battle is taking place in impoverished countries all over the world.

The frenzy for fast fashion sweeping across the superficial western world is paying its toll on poor countries across the globe. A pollution footprint is left with each step of the clothing cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards. In the age of global warming awareness and competition for ‘who-can-be-more-green’, it is ironic that fashion is spiraling into an environmental threat. Polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum.

With the rise in production in the fashion industry, demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, according to figures from the Technical Textile Markets. The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and it releases emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory diseases. Volatile monomers, solvents, and other by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants. The EPA, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators.

In developed countries, by estimation, 79% of annual purchases are discarded, increasing the stocks of clothing and other textiles held by consumers, according to Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste, a September 2006 report by consultant Oakdene Hollins. The report calls this stockpiling an increase in the “national wardrobe,” which is considered to represent a potentially large quantity of latent waste that will eventually enter the solid waste stream. According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year, and clothing and other textiles represent about 4% of the municipal solid waste. But this figure is rapidly growing.

Yet even today, the journey of a piece of clothing does not always end at the landfill. A portion of clothing purchases are recycled mainly in three ways: clothing may be resold by the primary consumer to other consumers at a lower price, it may be exported in bulk for sale in developing countries, or it may be chemically or mechanically recycled into raw material for the manufacture of other apparel and non-apparel products.

Domestic resale has boomed in the era of the Internet. Many people sell directly to other individuals through auction websites such as eBay. Another increasingly popular outlet is consignment and thrift shops, where sales are growing at a pace of 5% per year, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops.

For example in the UK the price of clothing has plummeted by 25%. The amount of clothing we buy has increased by more than 40% to more than two million tones a year. For this reason textiles are becoming the fastest growing waste product in the UK. The proportion of textile waste to other rubbish has risen from 7% to 30% in 5 years. About 74% of those 2 million tones we buy each year end up in landfills rotting slowly (or not at all) in a mass of polyester, viscose and acrylic blends. And increasingly we pack our rubbish off to poor countries and clog up their landfill sites instead.

Meanwhile, the poor quality of our cheap fashion fixes has caused the bottom to drop out of the recycled textile industry. The value of recycled material has fallen by 71 per cent over the past 15 years. Factor in collection and sorting costs, and many rag dealers and charities, forced to find outlets for donations that are too shabby to sell in their shops, find themselves paying out to recycle.

Furthermore, far less second-hand clothing is recyclable in the first place - a mere 3.5 per cent of that looming two million tonnes, or just under a third of the paltry 13 per cent of waste textiles that are recovered through charities, textile banks and rag dealers each year. (The remaining 13 per cent - clothing neither recovered nor sent to landfill - is incinerated.)

Lawrence Barry is no eco-warrior. He came into the business to make money. But back then, the trade was built on recycling. “When I started I was recycling 90 per cent of the clothes that came through,” he says. “Today it’s down to 30 per cent.”

They may have been coarse and drab but they were natural products and enjoyed second lives as industrial wiping cloths, insulation and stuffing.

Today, about two thirds of the fibres, yarns and fabrics coming into the UK are synthetic. They are blended into every conceivable combination - sometimes rendering them dangerously flammable in the process - and are nearly impossible to pick apart after use.

Most of the remaining 70 per cent is sent abroad, to Africa and Eastern Europe, where a booming industry has grown up around our unwanted exports. Critics have long condemned the practice for distorting fragile markets in developing countries. The donating public, too, has sometimes found it difficult to reconcile the friendly image of charity shops with the necessarily hard-nosed businesses behind them. But the problem is of our own making. We are offloading more and more clothing to charities and textile banks, but more and more of it is unsellable in the UK. A negligible 1.7 per cent of our annual clothing purchases will end up being sold second-hand in Britain, and on average charity shop sales account for just 10 per cent of a charity’s income.

Susan Strasser, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, in her book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, traces the “progressive obsolescence” of clothing and other consumer goods to the 1920s. Before then, and especially during World War I, most clothing was repaired, mended, or tailored to fit other family members, or recycled within the home as rags or quilts. The government’s conservation campaign used slogans such as “Make economy fashionable lest it become obligatory” and resulted in an approximate 10% reduction in the production of trash. We need to reintroduce this campaign for “fashionable recycling” in order to prevent damaging the environment more.

But why should Bolivia be responsible for the waste that the west produces? Whilst rich countries wallow in the hedonism of disposable fashion, their offloaded waste is suffocating the Bolivian economy and more importantly filling their land fill sites. I asked a variety of people in La Cancha how they viewed the environment within the used-clothes war. Predictably, the environment had not even been considered before I mentioned it to them. Some of the people I asked, a combination of shoppers and stall owners, explained that individually they had considered the environment, but collectively the argument is washed away by the dominant shouts of the factory owners and the government concerned about Bolivia’s economy. “It’s a good idea but in reality it is not a priority.” Katherine Valarde explained, “Personally, I think its good for the environment and recycling is important. But as a group, this is not important. The economy takes priority.”

When it comes to clothing, the rate of purchase and disposal has dramatically increased, so the path that a T-shirt travels from the sales floor to the landfill has become shorter. Recycling needs to become fashionable before we drown in a glut of discarded, forgotten fashions. People need to forget about their pride and re-wear clothes until they fall apart. Textiles have never been a great concern to “green governments”. It is easier for them to gain popularity with an easy tonne of glass or paper. But the textile problem has become too vast to ignore.

The River Rocha or Kundurillu

Toda ciudad importante tiene su río. Y Cochabamba tiene el suyo, llamado Rocha. Este río debe su actual nombre al Capitán Martín de la Rocha, uno de los primeros españoles llegados a estos valles.

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