Toxic smoke and suspicious plastic plant fires in Turkey

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Kartepe (Turkey) (AFP) – The number of fires exploding in plastic recycling plants has soared in Turkey.

Experts and activists suspect that this is not a coincidence, believing that some entrepreneurs want to get rid of unwanted rubbish sometimes imported from Europe.

In Kartepe, an industrial city in the northwest of the country, one of these sites was closed by the authorities in December after the outbreak of three fires 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 pollution of dioxin emissions from a dozen similar fires within a five-kilometer (three-mile) radius in less than two years.

“Shall we wear masks?” she said.

“Plastic lobby”

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

Nearly 520,000 tonnes will arrive in Turkey in 2021, adding to the country’s four to six million tonnes annually, according to data compiled by the Turkish branch of the NGO Greenpeace.

Much of this waste reaches the south of the country, especially in the province of Adana, where companies operating illegally have been closed in recent years.

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

“The problem is not the import of plastic from Europe, the problem is the import of non-recyclable or waste plastics,” said Baris Calli, a professor of environmental engineering at Marmara University in Istanbul.

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

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

“The rest of the waste should be sent to landfills but the landfills charge some money … so when some companies have significant amounts of waste on hand, they try to find some easy way to get rid of them,” he said.

Gundogdu finds it curious that “most of these fires take place at night” and in remote storage sections of reciprocal centers, away from the machines.

Baris Calli, a professor of environmental engineering, thinks that
Baris Calli, a professor of environmental engineering, thinks that “most of these fires are not just a coincidence” Ozan KOSE AFP

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

Following regulations in October 2021, companies in the sector found guilty of arson can be withdrawn from their licenses.

The environment ministry and the vice president of the garbage and recycling section of the Turkish Chamber of Commerce Union did not respond when asked by AFP how many companies are sanctioned.

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

He said the plastic industry lobby has intensified in Turkey in recent years.

According to the Turkish Recyclers Association GEKADER, the plastic waste sector generates $ 1 billion a year and employs about 350,000 people in 1,300 companies.

‘Enough sunlight’

In her office overlooking a bad warehouse in Kartepe, where plastics are sorted before being recycled or legally incinerated, Aylin Citakli has denied allegations of arson.

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

“These are easily flammable materials, anything can ignite, sunlight is enough,” she said.

Turkey has announced a ban on the import of plastic waste in May 2021 following a crackdown on the release of images of rubbish from Europe dumped in ditches and rivers.

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

There was a fire every three days in Turkey's plastic reprocessing facilities on average last year
There was a fire every three days in Turkey’s plastic reprocessing facilities on average last year Ozan KOSE AFP

Back in Kartepe, environmentalist Korkmaz is worried about the future of her region, where she has lived for 41 years.

She cited the example of Dilovasi, a town 40 kilometers (25 miles) away that contains many chemical and metal factories. Scientists have found abnormally high cancer rates there.

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

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