Toxic smoke, fires at plastic factories increase in Turkey

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A worker sorts plastic waste collected at a plastic recycling factory in Kartepe.

Kartepe (Turkey):

The number of fires in plastic recycling plants has skyrocketed in Turkey.

Experts and activists suspect this is no coincidence, as some entrepreneurs want to get rid of unwanted junk that is sometimes imported from Europe.

In Kartepe, an industrial city in the north-west of the country, one of these sites was closed by authorities in December after three fires broke out in less than a month.

One burned for more than 50 hours, spewing toxic black smoke over the area wedged between the mountains and the Sea of ​​Marmara.

“We don’t want our lakes and springs to be polluted,” said Beyhan Korkmaz, an environmental activist in the city.

She is concerned about the environmentally harmful dioxin emissions from a dozen similar fires within a five-kilometer (three-mile) radius in less than two years.

“Shall we wear masks?” She asked.

In Turkey‘s plastics processing plants, there was a fire every three days on average last year. The number rose from 33 in 2019 to 121 in 2021, according to Sedat Gundogdu, a professor specializing in plastic pollution at Cukurova University in the southern city of Adana.

“Plastic Lobby”

During the same period, Turkey became the leading importer of European plastic waste – ahead of Malaysia – after China banned imports in early 2018.

Almost 520,000 tons came to Turkey in 2021, adding to the four to six million tons the country produces each year, according to data compiled by the Turkish arm of the NGO Greenpeace.

Much of this waste ends up in the south of the country, particularly in the province of Adana, where illegal businesses have been shut down in recent years.

Other waste containers arrive at the ports of Izmir in the west and Izmit, not far from Kartepe.

“The problem is not importing plastic from Europe, the problem is importing non-recyclable or residual plastic,” said Baris Calli, a professor of environmental engineering at Istanbul’s Marmara University.

“My feeling is that most of these fires are not accidental,” he said.

He explained that only 20 to 30 percent of imported plastic waste is recyclable.

“The residue that’s left should be sent to incinerators, but the incinerators charge some money … that’s why some companies, when they have significant amounts of residue on their hands, try to find an easy way to get rid of it,” he said.

Gundogdu finds it odd that “most of these fires happen at night” and in remote storage areas of remanufacturing centers, away from the machines.

In a report published in August 2020, the international police organization Interpol expressed concern about an “increase in illegal garbage fires and dumping in Europe and Asia”, citing Turkey in particular.

Under an October 2021 regulation, companies in the industry found guilty of arson may have their permits revoked.

The Environment Ministry and the Vice President of Waste and Recycling Branch of the Union of Turkish Chambers of Commerce did not respond to AFP’s question about how many companies were sanctioned.

“The ministry can’t really investigate, or maybe they don’t want to find out,” Calli said.

He said the plastics industry lobby has grown stronger in Turkey in recent years.

According to the Turkish recyclers association GEKADER, the plastic waste sector generates US$1 billion annually and employs around 350,000 people in 1,300 companies.

“One ray of sunshine is enough”

In her office, which overlooks a dingy warehouse in Kartepe where plastics are sorted before recycling or legal incineration, Aylin Citakli denied the arson charge.

“I don’t think so,” said the sorting center’s environmental manager.

“These are highly combustible materials, anything can start a fire, a ray of sunshine is enough,” she said.

Turkey announced a ban on imports of plastic waste in May 2021 after an outcry following the release of images of waste dumped in ditches and rivers from Europe.

The ban was lifted a week after it came into effect.

Back in Kartepe, environmental activist Korkmaz worries about the future of her region, where she has lived for 41 years.

As an example, she gave Dilovasi, a town 40 kilometers away with many chemical and metal factories. Scientists have found abnormally high rates of cancer there.

“We don’t want to end up like them,” she said.

(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published by a syndicated feed.)

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