The number of fires at a plastic recycling plant in Turkey has risen.
Experts and activists suspect that this is not a coincidence, believing that some entrepreneurs sometimes want to get rid of unwanted waste imported from Europe.
Authorities shut down one of the sites in December after three fires erupted in less than a month in Cartepe, an industrial town in the northwestern part of the country.
One burned for more than 50 hours, sending toxic black smoke into the area between the mountains and the Marmara Sea.
“We don’t want our lakes and springs to be polluted,” said Behan Korkmaz, an environmental activist in the city.
He is concerned about the release of contaminated dioxin from a dozen similar fires within a five-kilometer (three-mile) radius in less than two years.
“Do we have to wear masks?” He asked.
Last year, on average, Turkish plastic processing plants caught fire every three days. The number has risen from 33 in 2019 to 121 in 2021, according to Professor Sedat Gundogdu, who specializes in plastic pollution at Kukurova University in the southern city of Adana.
At the same time, Turkey has become the top importer of European plastic waste since China banned imports in early 2018 – ahead of Malaysia.
About 520,000 tons arrived in Turkey in 2021, adding four to six million tons of the country’s production each year, according to data compiled by the Turkish branch of the NGO Greenpeace.
Most of this waste ends up in the south of the country, especially in Adana province, where illegally operated companies have closed down in recent years.
Other waste containers arrive at the port of Izmir in the west and in the port of Izmit, not too far from Cartep.
“The problem is not importing plastics from Europe, the problem is importing non-recyclable or residual plastics,” said Baris Callie, a professor of environmental engineering at Istanbul’s Marmara University.
“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 residue should be sent to the burned trees but the burned trees take some money … so when some companies have significant residues in their hands they try to find some easy way to get rid of them,” he said.
Gundogdu finds it curious that “most of these fires are happening at night” and away from the machine in the storage section outside the recycling center.
In a report published in August 2020, the international police agency Interpol, citing Turkey in particular, expressed concern about the “increase in illegal waste fires and landfills in Europe and Asia.”
Following a regulation in October 2021, companies in the sector convicted of arson may revoke their permits.
The ministry of environment and the vice-president of the waste and recycling branch of the Turkish Union of Chambers of Commerce did not respond to a request for comment on how many companies have been approved by AFP.
“The ministry can’t really investigate carefully, or maybe they don’t want to find out,” Callie said.
He said the lobby for the plastics industry in Turkey has strengthened 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.
‘One sunlight is enough’
Overlooking a dilapidated warehouse in Cartwright in her office, where plastic is sorted before being recycled or legally burned, Aylene Sitakalli denies the arson allegations.
“I don’t believe it,” said the selection center’s environmental manager.
“These are easily combustible substances, anything can catch fire, just one ray of sunlight is enough,” he said.
Turkey banned the import of plastic waste in May 2021 after the release of pictures of potholes and river waste from Europe.
The ban was lifted a week after it took effect.
Back in Kartep, environmental activist Korkmaz is worried about the future of his region, where he has lived for 41 years.
He cites the example of Dilovasi, 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, where there are many chemical and metallurgical factories. Scientists have found unusually high cancer rates there.
“We don’t want to end up like them,” he said.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)