Acrid smoke constantly billows from the mountains of trash at Kenya’s biggest landfill, where something is almost always burning due to the combustible mix of methane and chemicals.
Despite having been declared full in 2001, roughly 4,000 metric tons of waste from Nairobi is plowed into the Dandora dumpsite daily. Clothing, packed layers deep, like a geological record of quick-changing fashion trends, is everywhere. Some can still be identified by their labels—H&M or Nike, perhaps, or even Yves Saint Laurent. But there are items that are impossible to peg. Most of them are synthetic in origin, meaning they’re derived from polyester, acrylic or nylon. In various stages of colorful decay, they are not so much littered across the landscape as part of it.
Dandora in Nairobi, much like the beaches of Accra in Ghana and Chile’s Atacama Desert, wrote Changing Markets Foundation in its latest report, entitled “Trashion: The Stealth Export of Waste Plastic Clothes to Kenya,” has become “ground zero” for the scourge of fossil-fuel fashion, something that the corporate watchdog has been sounding the klaxon over for the past few years.
It’s the overreliance on fibers made from oil and gas, said campaign manager George Harding-Rolls at a press briefing Thursday, that enables “what we call the backbone of fast fashion” and the problems so many garments create at the end of their useful lives. Synthetic fibers today represent 69 percent of all textile production. By 2030, their number will make up at least 73 percent. And it’s places in the global South, like Dandora, that have become an “escape valve” for the overconsumption of apparel in the global North, which sends its castoffs “away,” often on the pretext of charity or circularity.
The Changing Markets Foundation decided to do some on-the-ground research on the issue, tapping nonprofits Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight for local assistance. Over the course of more than a year, researchers found what they characterized as a booming trade in “hidden waste,” predominantly from Europe. According to a European Environment Agency report published last week, the amount of used textiles from the European Union has tripled over the past two decades from just over 550,000 metric tons in 2000 to nearly 1.7 million metric tons in 2019. Nearly half of it ends up in Africa.
Traders that Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight interviewed described being “caught in a lottery,” where 20 to 50 percent of the used clothing they buy in mystery bales is unsellable, whether because it’s damaged, too small or unfit for the local context—ski shoes or puffer jackets, for instance. In some cases, they’re covered in vomit, stains or animal hair. Exporters in charge of collecting and sorting in the United Kingdom or EU, investigators said, have been failing to do their job, leaving it to countries like Kenya to manage their waste for them. And when resources and infrastructure falter, as they often do in the developing world, the garments are landfilled or burned, adding to the pollution problem many already face.
Dina Lingås, a Norion consultant who spoke at the same session, said it’s important to note that used clothes aren’t being “dumped” in the global South, which is a common albeit misleading narrative. She said there is a definite demand for used textiles from Europe, and because receiving countries like Kenya pay to receive them, they’re a “commodity.” But the value of each kilo of clothing has been dropping over the years, suggesting a corresponding decrease in quality.
“A lot of what is exported is in huge bales: plastic bags of a mix of used textiles,” she said. “And they’re kind of exported as surprise packs where the importers don’t know what is inside of the bag that they are buying; it’s a surprise for them and it’s not known by the exporters, as well. So there is a lot of uncertainty around the state of what is exported.”
Betterman Simidi Musasia, founder of Clean Up Kenya and one of the lead researchers, did not mince words. Of the 112 million used garments that the EU ships to Kenya annually, up to one in three contain plastic and are of such a low quality that they are immediately chucked aside or burned as fuel, poisoning the air, soil and water.
“This is intentional waste colonialism,” he said.
It’s a practice, first described as such at a United Nations convention in 1989, that The Or Foundation wants to end. Last month, the Ghana-based environmental-justice group, which works closely with the community at Kantamanto, the world’s largest secondhand market, launched its “Stop Waste Colonialism” campaign. The secondhand clothing trade, the organization said, has “decimated” Ghana’s textile sector, wiping out thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, the traders of Kantamanto are paying global North exporters an estimated $325 million a year on bales, 40 percent of which turns out to be trash.
“Waste colonialism is when a group of people uses waste and pollution to dominate another group of people in their homeland,” The Or Foundation said. The waste not only overruns Accra’s coastlines, creating tangled masses up to 30 meters long that locals call “tentacles,” but it also impacts communities financially by increasing the risk of asthma, cholera, malaria and other diseases. Ultimately, it said, the waste is used to displace people.
“‘Development’ initiatives often blame the communities closest to the disposal sites for the waste and use the pollution generated by the global North to bulldoze the homes of some of the…most vulnerable people…to ‘develop’ the land, often for the benefit of foreign people and foreign companies,” it said.
The Or Foundation said that “globally accountable” extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes are urgently needed, with a fee shared by the communities most affected by the “outsourcing” of waste. France, the only country to establish such a program for textiles, it noted, falls short because none of the money collected flows to the countries that deal with the waste. The nonprofit made an EPR-like arrangement, somewhat controversially, with Shein last year, to deliver reparations and uncover solutions. Policymakers, industry leaders and producer responsibility organizations alike must now employ a similar, if not even more robust, mechanism to shell out for the damage that the fashion production system has wreaked on poorer nations, it said.
“Eco-modulated” fees starting at 50 cents per newly produced garment should be the floor rate for EPR programs, The OR Foundation said. If a product is designed with no safe and effective end-of-life management in mind, the cost should go up to at least $2.50 to “financially shift companies and their customers away from such products and in order to pay for the socio-ecological cost of their waste management.”
The European Union is considering a bloc-wide EPR scheme as part of its Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. Last week, California introduced a bill to create a “first of its kind” EPR program that would require producers that manufacture or sell textiles, including apparel, in the state to fund and implement an end-to-end system to “optimize” their repair or recycling.
Harding-Rolls from the Changing Markets Foundation said they’re not asking for the secondhand clothing trade to be banned. “Kenya treats clothing [in a] much more circular than the way that we treat clothing in the global North,” he said. “Clothing is resized, it’s repaired, it’s cleaned and then when there’s no more use for that, it’s turned into rags.”
The fact that there’s such a preponderance of waste, however, means that the “status quo cannot continue,” Harding-Rolls said. Regulation, such as that suggested by the EU’s Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, could help. This could include rolling out an EPR program and instituting a tax on virgin plastic in the short term and addressing premature obsolescence—specifically the rapid-fire rate at which clothes become “out of fashion”—in the long.
There’s a need to address overproduction and overconsumption, too, said Emily Macintosh, policy officer for textiles at the European Environmental Bureau, a network of environmental citizens’ organizations across Europe. Speaking at the briefing, she said that legislators, in their quest to make products more “sustainable,” risk ignoring the volume of products being pumped out every year.
“It’s not the need to replace poor-quality products that’s driving growing demand,” she said. “It’s the availability of so much product at cheap prices.”