Story Publication logo April 23, 2024

Knot Trash



As textile waste continues to litter Ghana’s waterways, it also contributes to toxic microfiber and...


Anne Whiting documents the clothing found in an Accra dumpster. Image by Jackson James. Ghana, 2023.

Many of the Global North's leftover clothes are ending up trashed on faraway shores, destroying landscapes and reducing quality of life. We need to stop treating the Global South like a landfill.

Behind Black Star Square—its striking mod ‘60s architecture, its arches gleaming optimistically in the sun—is Osu Beach, part of Accra, Ghana’s sprawling shoreline. On Osu, perched on the higher, crustier part of the sand that leads to the water, like some abandoned shipwreck that surfaced with a receding tide, is a rusting yellow dumpster. It is filled, and it spills over the brim. Next to it lies an overflow pile. In both, the usual trash: punctured plastic bags, clear plastic water bottles, soda bottles and their errant labels, food wrappers, CDs, plastic forks/utensils, plastic cups, papers, styrofoam, crumpled paper.

But also clothes, lots of clothes.

Boxers and undershirt. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Distressed black jeans and a wallet. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

One flip flop. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Men's gym shorts. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Jarring when so prevalent—I’m not used to seeing so many garments in the garbage. Large, colorful, they stand out against the rest of the tarnished trash, like raisins in jollof rice, if you’ll forgive my even conjuring the sacred and delicious staple of Ghanaian cuisine. This Monday, to start the week, to end their life, there are black distressed denim, empty wallets, Adidas gym shorts, more gym shorts, flip flops, tote bags and reusable grocery bags, bras, bikini tops, boxers, sneakers, Crocs, fake Crocs, insoles, sandals, upside-down heels, a Hawaiian shirt.

Other garments have joined this trash pile from the sea. Tumbled and washed up by the waves, sun-dried t-shirts are belied by their ribbed necklines, their fabric folds hardened to resemble the carved, draping, stagnant gowns of Roman statues. More boxers, once light-blue plaid, lie dusty and faded, scrunched and caked in dried salt water, like fossils on cracked sediment.

White T-shirt, no longer white. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Women's swimsuit. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Zara boxers. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Follow the trail of clothing to the water: the sun floats on the beckoning hydration that is the Gulf of Guinea, beyond which is…well, the vast peace of the open sea! Trash aside, it’s a peaceful respite from Accra’s traffic, the vast and glistening nothingness a contrast from the crowds, shouts, and piles of merchandise at Kantamanto Market. For a moment, the passive waves under the open sky make it feel like Ghana’s coastline is the end of the Earth. For these clothes, at least, it is.

That’s why we have to come up with better textile recycling systems.

Unidentifiable garment. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Wallet. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

These beached garments may have been originally donated for reuse—but it’s believed that 80% or more of what gets donated for reuse in the West ends up not in less affluent Western closets but overseas. This percentage is so high given the apparel industry has figured out how to mass produce clothes for cheap in the 1990s and the resulting surplus means there’s so much clothing that Oxfam, Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc. alone can’t sell it all domestically. But the influx of leftover textiles coming into Ghana (for here we are today, though this is a continent-wide, worldwide issue) is so large that Ghana can’t handle it anymore either. The current setup of production → consumption → donation → the Global South’s resale markets and/or their landfills is not just unsustainable and unethical, but untenable.


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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
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