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Turkey: Plastic recycling harms health and the environment

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(Istanbul) – Plastic recycling in Turkey harms the health of many people and harms the environment for all, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 88-page report, “Like They Poison Us: The Health Effects of Plastic Recycling in Turkey,” documents the consequences of the Turkish government’s ineffective response to the health and environmental impacts of plastic recycling on the right to health. Air pollutants and toxins from recycling affect workers, including children, and people who live near recycling facilities.

The government has failed to enforce laws and regulations that require strict licensing and regular and thorough inspections of recycling and occupational health facilities, greatly exacerbating the facilities’ health and environmental impacts. Plastic waste imported from the European Union contributes significantly to these violations.

“Turkey has regulations to protect people and the environment, but not enforcing them increases the risk of people developing serious, lifelong health conditions,” said Krista Schennum, Gruber fellow in the environment and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. “The government of Turkey needs to do more to fulfill its obligations to protect people from the effects of recycling toxic plastic.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 64 people, including 26 who currently work or have previously worked in plastic recycling facilities in Istanbul and Adana and 21 who live near plastic recycling facilities. Five of the workers were children at the time of the interview, and four adults interviewed began working at a plastic recycling facility as children.

Neighboring community workers and residents described respiratory problems, severe headaches, skin conditions, a lack of protective equipment, and little or no access to medical treatment for occupational diseases. Many of the facilities Human Rights Watch visited were dangerously close to homes, in contravention of Turkish environmental laws and regulations.

To recycle waste plastic, it is shredded, washed and melted at high temperatures and then made into pellets. This process releases air pollutants and toxins that can contribute to short-term health problems, including asthma, difficulty breathing, and eye irritation, without adequate protection. Scientists have also linked exposure to these toxins to an increased risk of cancer, neurological effects, and damage to the reproductive system. In addition, plastics are made from fossil fuels and toxic additives, and also emit significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the climate crisis.

Since the Chinese government banned plastic waste imports in 2018, many countries in the global north have been scrambled to find new destinations for their plastic waste. Due to its geographical proximity, strong trade relations with the European Union and its status as a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Turkey has become the main destination for plastic waste in the European Union, receiving nearly half of the EU’s exports of plastic waste in 2020 and 2021.

Many workers in recycling facilities belong to Turkey’s most vulnerable population groups, including children, refugees and undocumented migrants. Some workers, including undocumented immigrants, said they do not have access to medical services if they fall ill or are injured in the workplace. Fear of losing their jobs made workers anxious about raising employers’ concerns about harmful working conditions, including working without access to personal protective equipment.

Human Rights Watch found that children work in plastic recycling facilities in Turkey even though Turkish law prohibits them from working in such hazardous conditions and being exposed to pollution and toxins that are particularly harmful to their health.

“There is a huge boiler where they cook the material, and they keep adding water which comes back again in the form of steam,” said a 20-year-old waste picker in Adana who worked at a plastic recycling center as a child. “When I inhaled it, it felt like my lungs were compressed and under pressure… I stopped working there two months ago, but I still have trouble breathing.”

Residents of nearby communities said the intense odors and pollution from recycling plastic prevented them from sleeping, opening windows and spending time outside.

“My 27-year-old sister died of colon cancer, this was 10 years ago,” said a 35-year-old man whose family has lived for decades near recycling facilities. Living near recycling facilities is believed to be a factor in the deaths of four relatives. My brother died four years ago of lung cancer at the age of 34. I think that’s the effect of the recycling plants.”

Human Rights Watch has found that workers and nearby residents do not have access to basic information about the levels of toxins in their environment, the risks of exposure to these toxic substances, or ways to reduce these risks even though the law requires Turkish authorities and employers to monitor conditions and share this information. .

While it is mandatory for plastic recycling facilities to obtain licenses and permits from the relevant authorities, it is unclear exactly how many meet this requirement and how many operate without licenses. Licensing requires adherence to environmental and occupational health standards that will reduce health risks. For licensed facilities, environmental and occupational health and labor inspections often fail to adequately examine environmental and health conditions.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Turkey’s major ministries and municipalities to share preliminary research findings and seek information on plastic recycling facilities, air quality data, inspection reports, disease rates related to exposure to toxic substances, plastic waste import data, and child labor. In some cases, Human Rights Watch received no response. In other cases, responses received were incomplete and did not provide answers to posted questions. For example, the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change said it has conducted thousands of inspections of waste disposal and recycling facilities since 2018 and imposed fines on facilities and closed down unlicensed facilities. However, the ministry did not provide specific data on plastic recycling facilities, and the findings of the Human Rights Watch report show the need for more aggressive steps to address the rampant violations of the right to health.

Turkey’s Ministry of Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change should conduct independent and comprehensive inspections of recycling facilities to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and to make information about air pollution and exposure risks readily available, Human Rights Watch said. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security should enforce Turkey’s ban on child labor in hazardous workplaces, including plastic recycling facilities.

Countries that export plastic waste, including those in the European Union, should take steps to manage their plastic waste more effectively locally, rather than shipping their waste to countries with poor or insufficient government enforcement of environmental and labor regulations. The Turkish government should reinstate the ban on imported plastic waste for recycling, which it introduced in July 2021 but quickly lifted.

“Europe’s richest countries send their waste to Turkey, exposing some of Turkey’s most vulnerable communities, including children, refugees and migrants, to serious environmental and health risks,” said 9. “The European Union and individual plastic exporters must take responsibility for their own plastic waste, put an end to the export of plastic to Turkey, and reduce the amount of plastic they produce and consume.”