KARTEPE (AFP) – The number of fires breaking out in plastic recycling plants has soared in Turkey.
Experts and activists suspect it’s not a coincidence, believing that some entrepreneurs want to get rid of unwanted rubbish sometimes imported from Europe.
In Kartepe, an industrial town in the country’s north-west, 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 polluting dioxin emissions from a dozen similar fires within a five-kilometer radius in less than two years.
“Should we wear masks?” she said.
Over the same period, Turkey became the leading importer of European plastic waste -- ahead of Malaysia -- after China banned imports at the start of 2018.
Nearly 520,000 tons arrived in Turkey in 2021, adding to the four to six million tons the country generates each year, according to data compiled by the Turkish branch of the NGO Greenpeace.
Much of this waste ends up in the south of the country, especially in Adana province, where companies operating illegally have been closed 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 plastics,” said Baris Calli, 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 only 20 to 30 percent of imported plastic waste is recyclable.
In a report published in August 2020, international police organization Interpol expressed concern about an “an increase in illegal waste fire and landfills in Europe and Asia”, citing Turkey in particular.
Following an October 2021 regulation, companies in the sector found guilty of arson can have their permits withdrawn.
The environment ministry and the vice-president of the waste and recycling branch of the Union of Chambers of Commerce of Turkey did not respond when asked by AFP how many companies have been sanctioned.