A peanut vendor at a market in Mombasa, Kenya, displays a sweater with a label from a well-known international clothing brand. He’ll use it to stoke the fire on which he roasts his nuts, not because he has extra sweaters, but because it’s too damaged to reuse. However, the material from which he is made – “100% polyester”, says the label – is a plastic fiber that burns easily. The sweater is one of the millions of pieces of used clothing that arrive in Kenya each year without anyone else being able to give it a second life. In 2021 alone, the European Union sent more than 112 million items of second-hand clothing to this African country (in total, 900 million items of clothing arrived in Kenya from all over the world), of which more than 56 million were dirty , “even with vomit stains and animal hair”, or damaged. Of the latter, at least 37 million (70,000 from Spain) had been made with synthetic materials, according to an investigation made public this Thursday by Clean Up Kenya (Clean Kenya) and Wildlight for Changing Markets Foundation, an organization that defends the production and sustainable trade.
The authors of the report base their conclusions on the analysis of 4,000 items of used clothing found in second-hand markets in Kenya, which they have contrasted with data from the country’s customs records. This East African state, they say, “receives a very significant volume of used clothing from the UK and the EU” and illustrates what happens to used clothing that “well-meaning citizens” donate to NGOs or sort for recycling : tons of this clothing produced by the addition to fast fashion ends up every year directly thrown into the landfills of African countries, setting up a landscape of colossal mountains of toxic plastic. They are what Kenyans refer to as “phagia” or junk clothing, waste that is causing serious health and environmental problems.
The cost of clothing in EU countries, as a proportion of household spending, has fallen from 30% in the 1950s to 5% in 2020, according to data from the consultancy McKinsey & Company. This fall in prices has contributed to consumers buying 60% more clothing than 15 years ago —the European Environment Agency estimates that each EU citizen throws away an average of 15 kilos of textiles per year— and to keeping them half the time. One of the factors that explains this reduction in costs is precisely the increase in synthetic materials, cheaper than natural ones, such as polyester and nylon for the manufacture of garments: since 1980, their use has quadrupled and today represents today 69% of the total textile fibers used in the manufacture of clothing, according to the petrochemical industry consultancy Tecno OrbiChem.
“The export of used clothing to poor countries has become an escape valve for systematic overproduction and a stealthy stream of waste that should be illegal,” denounces Changing Markets Foundation. According to a decision taken in May 2019 by 187 countries during a “Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention”, an agreement that deals with the control of transboundary movements of hazardous waste and its disposal, the richest countries cannot send non-recyclable plastic waste to less wealthy countries. “The used clothing trade is a glaring loophole,” as “recycling companies often disguise the used clothing trade as a way to reduce waste,” warns a spokeswoman for the foundation.
a lucrative business
But the sale of second-hand clothing is an increasingly profitable industry that also involves a large number of players. Each ton of used clothing, whether sold by recycling companies or by NGOs that use the profits to finance their humanitarian work, reaches a price that varies between 400 and 1,000 euros, according to the report.
Recycling companies often disguise the used clothing trade as a way to reduce waste
Changing Markets Foundation Spokesperson
“The second-hand clothing business is very lucrative when you consider the tonnage involved, and it is even in Kenya for importers and wholesalers,” says Betterman Simidi Musasia, founder of Clean Up Kenya, in an interview with this newspaper. . The export of used clothing gives work in the African country to some two million people, according to research estimates, including importers, intermediaries, sellers, store owners or tailors and shoemakers who fix the garments. However, not everyone perceives so many gains. “The small traders who buy the bundles are the first to lose, because they don’t know what’s inside, it’s just a lottery,” adds Simidi Musasia.
“The problem is that a lot of clothes arrive dirty or damaged,” says a woman who sells clothes in a market in Kenya, interviewed by the researchers. These shopkeepers buy packages with about 200 garments, for a price of between 50 and 80 euros. According to the conclusions of the Changing Markets Foundation, “between 20% and 50% of garments cannot be used because they are damaged, stained, too large or culturally inappropriate”.
But useless clothing also has a value: the phagia it can be sold at about 0.50 euros per kilo since its manufacture based on plastic fibers allows it to be used as fuel. “It is very worrying because of the toxic effects of burning plastics on human health and the ease with which these ashes are deposited in rivers and reach the oceans,” the researchers warn. And those that do not burn, as verified on the ground by the authors of the report, end up in landfills such as Dandora, next to the Nairobi River and one of the largest in Africa. Every day, it receives some 4,000 tons of garbage, despite the fact that in 2001 the country’s authorities declared that it was at the limit of its capacity.
The second-hand clothing business is very lucrative when you consider the tonnage involved.
Betterman Simidi Musasia, founder of Clean Up Kenya
However, the dimension of European responsibility in this export of plastic waste could be even greater, since the researchers suspect that part of the garments that Pakistan exports to Kenya originate from European countries. “Pakistan is one of the largest importers of used clothing from the EU and the UK due to lower labor costs for sorting” the garments, the report states. According to Islamabad customs records, between March and August 2022, a total of 761 tons of used clothing were shipped to Kenya. Although it is not possible to say that all of these garments were of European origin, several Kenyan importers confirmed to the report’s authors that some of the clothing they sold from the UK had entered the country via Pakistani export companies.
“The solution is not to close the used clothing trade, but to transform it, since this very hedonistic industry needs rules and limits,” says George Handing-Rolls, head of campaigns for the Changing Markets Foundation, who believes that “there is no recycling companies can be allowed to hide behind their empty promises.” And he settles: “They should be prohibited from exporting junk clothes.”
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