The Dandora textile waste mountain is a glaring example of our Western waste colonialism

Every year, the UK dumps twelve million pieces of 'junk plastic' clothing items on a textile waste heap in Kenya. This leads to serious health and environmental problems for vulnerable communities, according to an examination of import data and textile waste research on site.

The return boxes, with 'recycling' advertised so boldly, are a prime example of the many greenwashing campaigns run by the big chains. Smaller brands that truly want to upcycle old textiles collect targeted material streams.

The Clean Up Kenya team captured shocking images of a sprawling rubbish dump in Nairobi, near several primary schools. In some places, the textile waste is piled as high as a four-story building and the clothing waste pours into a river. 30% of all clothing found there is plastic. Items from H&M, Nike, and Yves Saint Laurent stand out among the waste.

12 million pieces of the UK's textile waste end up in Kenya every year

Clean up Kenya's research outcomes are a harsh reality check:

Of the 36,640,890 pieces of used clothing shipped directly from the UK to Kenya each year, up to one in three contain plastic and are of such low quality that they are immediately dumped on the textile waste heap or burned to heat water, for cooking or even reportedly to fuel a power plant. The impact of this on soil, water, and air pollution is significant.

Kenyan traders report clothes soiled with vomit, heavy stains and animal hair: perhaps from our pets?

The report refers to large textile collection campaigns by industry-known NGOs that market themselves as solution bidders. As a result, these charities' sustainability claims in the areas of health, child protection, and international development can be labeled "empty promises".

The amount of discarded clothing flowing into Kenya from global sources has increased significantly in recent years, a flow that amounts to 17 garments per year per Kenyan, of which up to eight are useless.

The mini-documentary focuses only on the direct exports to Kentya, the real scale of the problem is probably much larger. Much of the used clothing exported by European countries passes through a web of countries inside and outside of Europe that mix and sort clothing, making it impossible to trace. Transparency needs to be improved to crack down on the "laundering" of used clothes, said Changing Markets.

Does the EPR offer a solution to the textile waste mountain?

A report on the study, "Trashion, the stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya", was published the day before the start of London Fashion Week. Changing Markets accuses the industry of causing an explosion of poor-quality clothing and hiding the consequences with largely misleading ethical claims. Brands should be required to pay for their textile waste, Trashion says, and clothes should be designed sustainably. The UK plans in 2023 to take action through extended producer responsibility in hope of delivering a more circular economy.

Trashion concludes that there is a clear loophole in the trade law regarding used clothing. The 2019 legal agreement, which prohibits richer countries from dumping non-recyclable plastic waste in less wealthy countries, is clearly not sufficiently conclusive.

"Indeed, according to Textile Exchange, 52% of all clothing placed on the market is made of polyester, of which 14% is PET-bottle recycled polyester. It has for years been wrongly promoted as 'more sustainable' by the 'greenwashing' machine of multinational retail chains," adds Niki de Schryver, founder of COSH!

A shame because this material is almost impossible to recycle when combined with other materials or textile colours.

Textile waste trade goes via many detours

Customs data shows that Europe's largest direct exporters of used clothing to Kenya in 2021 were Germany, Poland, and the UK. These are mostly through donations, and this trade in second-hand items has become a major source of income for some charities.

Simidi Musasia, the founder of Clean Up Kenya, said, "We went to the Ground Zero of the fast fashion world to expose the truth. The trade in used clothing from Europe is largely and increasingly a trade in hidden textile waste. This waste colonialism should be illegal. Much of the clothing donated to charity by well-meaning people ends up this way. Why? Because the backbone of the fast fashion industry is plastic, and plastic clothes are essentially junk. Countries like Kenya are the outlet of fast fashion. Traders buy up bundled clothes blindly and understandably dump the growing percentage of textiles that turn out to be useless. In reality, our addiction to fast fashion saddles poorer countries like Kenya with polluted land, air, and water."

George Harding-Rolls, Changing Markets Foundation's campaign director said, "Unless the fashion industry is fundamentally changed, what we have seen in Kenya and around the world is just the beginning. The solution is not to shut down the trade in used clothing, but to reform it. We cannot solve this problem by recycling. The industry needs limits and rules. This is why we welcome the vision proposed by the EU. It should be comprehensive and include strict targets for recycling and reuse, and tax plastic fabrics to steer fashion towards more high-quality, sustainable fabrics. Recycling companies should not hide behind their empty promises and should be banned from exporting discarded clothes."