Itinerant garbage pickers run down the hilly streets of Istanbul, their trolleys packed with plastic and other waste.
Their haul is a boon for the recycling industry in Turkey. “We collect 80% of the waste from the streets,” said Recep Karaman, head of the street waste collectors association.
But imports of plastic waste from the UK are increasing, and Karaman says it could damage the income he and his colleagues earn from garbage picking.
“3.5m of the 6m tonnes of waste produced annually is collected by us,” he said. “But our earnings drop due to imports; they decrease the value of the waste we collect.”
Waste collectors are holding out hope that a new protocol by the government will protect and secure the jobs of the 500,000 collectors, while also protecting the environment and the economic potential of waste in Turkey.
Following restrictions on imports of UK plastic waste imposed by Malaysia and Vietnam and now being considered in Poland, the rise in the tonnage of containers landing on Turkish shores is causing growing concern.
According to data submitted by UK exporters to the Environment Agency (EA) and seen by the Guardian, in the first three months of 2018 the UK shipped 27,034 tonnes of waste plastic to Turkey, compared with 12,022 tonnes in the same period last year.
In October, Turkey is likely to overtake Poland and become the second-biggest receiver of UK plastic, according to the data.
Yet the EA has not visited the country to check whether UK plastic packaging waste is actually being recycled or reused or if the process is being carried out to a standard that prevents leakage into rivers and the ocean.
It is illegal for UK companies to export waste for disposal abroad other than for recycling or recovery, but the rigour with which the EA enforces the law has been seriously questioned by the National Audit Office.
A glance at Turkey’s record on recycling does not reassure environmental observers. According to OECD data from 2015, Turkey recycles just 1% of its domestic waste, sending the rest to landfill.
Research published in the journal Science lists Turkey as among the top 20 countries in the world for mismanaging plastic waste.
Municipalities in Turkey, who are responsible for collecting the waste, gathered 31m tonnes in 2016. According to the statistical institute in Turkey, only 9.8% was sent to recycling centres, with the rest stored in landfills.
Yağmur Cengiz, general manager of Pagcev (Recycling Entity of the Turkish Plastic Industry Foundation), said far more recycling and collection plants were needed to cope; currently there are 751 licensed recycling plants and 566 collection and separation sites.
And there are concerns within Turkey that UK plastic waste could damage its own environment. Vedat Kılıç, head of Tudam, the recyclable waste industrialists association, said on one hand the increase in imports of plastic waste to Turkey was an opportunity for the growing plastic products industry that makes synthetic yarn and shopping bags. The sector had begun to make major profits within the past two years, and investments have led to the establishment of new businesses.
But he warned that imports need to be controlled. Speaking at a conference held this year entitled Fire in the Waste Sector! Don’t Let Turkey Be the Garbage Dump of the World, Kiliç said uncontrolled imports of plastic waste from Europe were damaging Turkey environmentally and economically. Kilic said the increase in imports could put the zero-waste policy launched by Emine Erdogan, the president’s wife, at risk.
Away from the hills where Istanbul’s waste collectors ply their trade, Sedat Gündoğdu, an academic at the Cukurova University Faculty of Fisheries, is tracking the impact of plastic waste in the Mediterranean.
According to his studies, the coast of Turkey is the most polluted in the whole of the Mediterranean. He puts this down to agricultural activities, underdeveloped infrastructure, a rise in urbanism and inefficient waste management policies.
The southern coastal cities of Mersin, Adana and Antalya produce more plastic waste than any others in Turkey. ‘‘Any heavy rain carries this waste through rivers spilling them into the sea,” he said.
As well as the discarded plastic waste, some raw materials such as virgin plastic can leach into the sea through sewage systems of the facilities during the recycling procedures, he said.
The impact is visible along the 22km length of Akyatan beach. One of the most important green turtle nesting areas in the region, it is now littered with significant plastic pollution.
Increased imports of UK plastic waste could add to the problem, much of which is contaminated to levels as high as 9.5%, according to NAO data.
Gündoğdu said recycling was not the solution: ‘‘The only solution is to decrease plastic consumption, otherwise everyone, including Europeans coming for holiday to the coast of Mediterranean, might end up swimming along in their own waste.’’