One-third of European used clothing donations to Kenya is really plastic waste

Wide shot showing Dandora landfill, which is the final resting place of tonnes of used clothing donations from Europe that go on to become plastic waste
Support us and go ad-free

A report published on 16 February by the Changing Markets Foundation said one third of all second-hand clothing donations to Kenya in 2021 was “plastic waste in disguise”. This has led to a slew of environmental damage and health problems for local communities. And the culprit is European ‘fast fashion‘.

Every year, the Global North donates tonnes of clothing to the Global South. However, an estimated 30% of it ends up in landfills. The donations also end up flooding local markets, where it can crowd out local production. The report said that data showed that Germany, Poland and the UK were the biggest direct exporters of used clothing to Kenya in 2021.

Waste colonialism

The Changing Markets Foundation report, Trashion, showed that the problem is having grave consequences in Kenya, where some 900 million pieces of clothing donations are sent every year. Items made from petroleum-based materials such as polyester made up much of the shipped clothing. Meanwhile, others items are unwearable because they’re in such bad shape. As a result, they often end up burning in landfills near the capital, Nairobi. This then exposes informal waste pickers to toxic fumes. Tonnes of textiles are also swept into waterways, eventually breaking down into microfibres ingested by aquatic animals.

The report said:

EU countries are dumping 37 million items of junk plastic clothing in Kenya every year that are too dirty or damaged to be reused, creating serious health and environmental problems for vulnerable communities

It went on to say that more than “one in three pieces” of clothing donations sent to Kenya is plastic waste in disguise. These are the source of a “substantial element of toxic pollution” across the country.

Non-profit organisation Wildlight and the activist group Clean Up Kenya carried out the research for the report. And founder of Clean Up Kenya, Betterman Simidi Musasia, said:

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

We went to the Ground Zero of the fast fashion world to unmask an ugly truth – that the trade of used clothing from Europe is, to a large and growing extent, a trade in hidden waste. This is known as waste colonialism and it is supposed to be illegal.

The EU passed laws banning plastic waste export to the Global South in 2021. However, Trashion concluded that clothing donations are an “obvious loophole”.

Clothing donations are a ‘pressure-release valve’

In an attempt to make use of unwearable items, people may turn them into industrial wipes or cheap fuel for peanut roasters. They also send the clothes to immense plastic graveyards outside the capital, such as the Dandora landfill. According to the report, several waste pickers working at Dandora said they contracted breathing and asthma issues by inhaling smoke from burning plastic at the site.

Musasia said the Global North can help prevent the issues by better sorting the items at the point of donation, before shipping them to Kenya.

Trashion said:

The Global North is using the trade of used clothing as a pressure-release valve to deal with fast fashion’s enormous waste problem.

The report goes on to call for the use of non-toxic and sustainable materials in textile manufacturing, and the establishment of more robust extended producer responsibility schemes around the world.

Featured image via Falkue/Wikimedia Commons via CC 4.0, resized to 770×403

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Support us and go ad-free

We know everyone is suffering under the Tories - but the Canary is a vital weapon in our fight back, and we need your support

The Canary Workers’ Co-op knows life is hard. The Tories are waging a class war against us we’re all having to fight. But like trade unions and community organising, truly independent working-class media is a vital weapon in our armoury.

The Canary doesn’t have the budget of the corporate media. In fact, our income is over 1,000 times less than the Guardian’s. What we do have is a radical agenda that disrupts power and amplifies marginalised communities. But we can only do this with our readers’ support.

So please, help us continue to spread messages of resistance and hope. Even the smallest donation would mean the world to us.

Support us
  • Show Comments
    1. Petroleum derived fibre production for clothing etc. should, along with and, be equal to urgent reduction in fossil fuels. Todays clothing lets loose micro-plastic particles from moment manufactured items come off the looms. Clothing manufacturers and high street clothes stores should be called to account just as fossil fuel power stations and Net Zero campaigners expedite bravely their targeted sites of shame. As individuals we can look at labels closely and reject buying ‘petrol clothes’. Although, this raises issue of alternative fibre production that is sustainable and that doesn’t enslave poorer nations to grow one-crop ‘farmed fibre commodities’ wealthier nations demand. As the article states recycling has to be one of the answers.

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.