Turkey, the new address for plastic waste

Turkey, the new address for plastic waste
Update: 06 July 2022 22:04
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Rozerin Yuksel tells the story of how Turkey became the dumping ground of Europe at the cost of polluting its seas and air in search of easy profits.

In our times, plastic pollution has become a major global problem affecting all lands, seas and even the poles. The issue of Turkish waste imports came to the spotlight again after journalist Kit Chellel placed a GPS on a plastic bin bag in London and discovered that the bag had travelled to Adana, on Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast, via the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland.

Following China's ban on plastic waste imports in 2018, Turkey became the new address for plastic waste. The suspension of these imports by China and the search for new directions of plastic waste exports by European countries, as well as the granting of various incentives by the Turkish government to companies importing waste, were the reasons why the country's plastic waste imports continue to increase exponentially every year.

Turkey, Europe's largest importer of waste in 2020

According to a GreenPeace research, Turkey was the country that received the most plastic waste from Europe in 2020. The country accounted for 28% of European plastic waste exports. Compared to last year, its plastic waste imports increased by 13% and 241 truckloads of plastic waste arrived in Turkey every day. In the last 16 years, plastic waste from Europe to Turkey has increased 196-fold.

According to data collected by Greenpeace Mediterranean from the European Statistical Office (Eurostat) and the UK Office for National Statistics, 27 EU countries exported 31 million tonnes of waste worth €13.4 billion to third countries in 2019. Turkey imported a total of 659,960 tonnes of plastic waste from EU countries and the UK in 2020.

Responding to +GercekNews' questions, Nihan Temiz, head of Greenpeace's Mediterranean Biodiversity Project, said that buying separated products is a cheaper and easier method for recycling companies and that this is preferred.  

"Excess plastic waste signifies loading hundreds of containers on ships. These ships have to be evaluated and analysed by experts, but it is not possible to open all the containers one by one. In this process, even the fact that the containers are waiting there can lead to various contaminations."

"You don't get rid of that waste when you burn it"

Due to deficiencies in waste management, it is estimated that 37% of plastic wastes worldwide cause pollution by mixing with soil, fresh water and seas.

Stating that Turkey ranks first in the world in terms of coastal pollution, Greens Co-Spokesperson Özlem Teke told +GercekNews that the disposal methods of plastic waste have awful consequences.

Özlem underlined that Turkey has come so far by failing to understand the laws of ecology, and it is still not comprehended that nothing is destroyed in ecology: "When you burn it, you do not get rid of that waste, you transform it into a different form and it mixes into the atmosphere, soil and water. In Turkey, 8.000.000 tonnes of micro plastics are mixed into Turkey's seas annually due to the disposal of these plastic wastes in this way."

We have more than 90 waste incineration plants

Energy and climate expert Önder Algedik states that according to the Environmental Permits and Licensing Statistics Bulletin-2020, there are 19 companies that have obtained temporary activity certificates for "Waste Incineration and Co-incineration" and 71 companies that have already obtained licences. If those with temporary activity certificates have also completed their licensing procedures, we now have more than 90 waste incineration facilities.[1]

Nihan Temiz explained the environmental cost and human health impacts of illegally imported and incinerated waste and the bad effects of waste disposal systems.

Temiz stated that waste is sent to cement factories and incinerated for free to generate energy and said: "Contrary to popular belief, waste incineration generates much greater destruction. With the world on the brink of a climate crisis, waste incineration increases greenhouse gases and persistent pollutants. Ash pollution reaches a level that poses a serious threat to human health."

The Ministry of Environment and Urban Development has decreed that from the end of 2019, companies can meet up to 80 per cent of their plastic waste processing capacity from imported waste. In 2020, this rate has been reduced to 50 per cent. The ministry explained the reason for the reduction in the quota as "it has become necessary to meet half of the raw material requirement from the domestic market" and "to increase employment" in the recycling sector. Despite this decree, the fifty per cent quota was exceeded due to the economic interests of companies and insufficient inspections by the Ministry, and imports of plastic waste continued as they were instead of utilising local waste.

With the communiqué published on 18 May 2021, the Ministry of Environment and Urban Development banned the import of polyethylene, which constitutes a major part of plastic waste imports, from 2 July 2021. However, with another communiqué published in the Official Gazette on 10 July 2021, the ban on the import of polyethylene waste was lifted.

Özlem Teke stated that among the efforts made by the Ministry within the scope of environmental regulations are the zero waste project and the deposit refund system, and that these systems have been deferred due to pressure from lobbyists and have not been maintained.

"We have no right to release even the smallest amount of carbon into the atmosphere"

While promises such as the zero waste regulation on waste imports are not kept, at the same time, the destruction of nature for profit in many parts of the country brings us closer to the climate crisis every day.

Pointing out that nature is seen only as an economic resource and that the exploitation of nature continues to destroy our living spaces, Özlem Teke stressed that we no longer have the right to release even the smallest amount of carbon into the atmosphere, that the climate crisis is warning us and that these warnings must be heeded as soon as possible.

The research shows that the main reasons for importing waste into Turkey are government incentives and the lack of a functioning environmental policy.

Nihan Temiz, stressing the need to move away from fossil fuels and coal in the framework of COP26, said: "Plastic affecting the climate crisis is just one of the issues at hand, and even here we have not been able to see an action plan although we have been campaigning for a long time. The Ministry should be working on how to minimise waste, but unfortunately we don't see any concrete measures in terms of environmental policies."

*Rozerin Yuksel was born and went to school in Istanbul before studying journalism at Onsekiz Mart University. Her studies focused on rights-based journalism and new media during her university years and she participated in various social responsibility projects.