One August day I found myself on top of one of the most impressive mountains I’ve seen. I’d scaled it with very little equipment, in the same Nike sneakers I wear on the treadmill. There were no harnesses, no guides, and no resupply stations along the way. In fact, it only took about 20 minutes to get to the summit, despite frequent picture breaks. At the top, I looked out into an endless blue sky to my right, and a cloud of furious black smoke to my left.
It was not your typical mountain. Located about 25 miles away from the capital city of Accra, Ghana, the Kpone landfill holds household trash, plastic bags, food waste, and—you guessed it—clothing. As it so happened, that day a portion of Kpone had caught fire—hence the black smoke. Over the course of the week, the entire landfill would go up in flames.
If you’re wondering how a lot of foreign-label shoes, clothes, and accessories arrived in a landfill in Ghana, you’re not alone. Very few of us think about what happens to our clothes after we’ve gotten rid of them. We lug garbage bags full of items that no longer “spark joy” to the Salvation Army, or we toss them in the trash with our Starbucks cup. We donate with good intentions—we want our things to have a second life; we want someone else to get good use out of them, even if we’ve decided they’re useless. And while that sometimes happens, the truth is that there is not enough global demand for the massive quantities of secondhand, low-quality clothing we donate. As a result, our good intentions become costly, overwhelming waste and an environmental nightmare for people living halfway around the world.