The number of fires breaking out at plastic recycling factories has skyrocketed in Turkey.
Experts and activists suspect this is no coincidence, believing that some entrepreneurs want to get rid of unwanted waste 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, belching 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 worries about the polluting emissions of dioxins from a dozen similar fires within a radius of five kilometers (three miles) in less than two years.
“Should we wear masks? she asked.
There was a fire every three days in plastic reprocessing plants in Turkey on average last year. The number rose from 33 in 2019 to 121 in 2021, according to Sedat Gundogdu, a professor specializing in plastic pollution at Cukurova University in the southern city of Adana.
“Plastic Entrance Hall”
During the same period, Turkey became the largest importer of European plastic waste, ahead of Malaysia, after China banned imports in early 2018.
Nearly 520,000 tonnes arrived in Turkey in 2021, adding to the four to six million tonnes 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, notably in the province of Adana, where companies operating illegally have been closed 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 that only 20-30% of imported plastic waste is recyclable.
“The remaining residue should be sent to incineration plants, but incineration plants charge money…that’s why when some companies have large amounts of residue on their hands, they try to find a easy way to get rid of it,” he said.
Gundogdu finds it curious that “most of these fires occur at night” and in outlying storage sections of reprocessing centers, away from machinery.
In a report published in August 2020, the international police organization Interpol expressed concern about an “increase in fires and illegal dumping of waste in Europe and Asia”, citing Turkey in particular.
Following an October 2021 settlement, businesses in the sector found guilty of arson may have their license revoked.
The Ministry of the Environment and the vice-president of the waste and recycling branch of the Union of Chambers of Commerce of Turkey did not answer AFP’s question on the number of companies sanctioned.
“The department can’t investigate very carefully, or maybe they don’t want to know,” Calli said.
He said the plastics industry lobby has grown stronger in Turkey in recent years.
According to the Turkish recyclers association GEKADER, the plastic waste sector generates $1 billion a year and employs some 350,000 people in 1,300 companies.
“A ray of sunshine is enough”
In her office overlooking a seedy warehouse in Kartepe, where plastics are sorted before being recycled or legally incinerated, Aylin Citakli has dismissed arson charges.
“I don’t believe it,” said the sorting center’s environment manager.
“These are easily flammable materials, anything can start a fire, a ray of sunlight is enough,” she said.
Turkey announced an import ban on plastic waste in May 2021 following an outcry over images of Europe’s waste being dumped in ditches and rivers.
The ban was lifted a week after it came into effect.
Back in Kartepe, environmental activist Korkmaz worries 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 which is home to many chemical and metallurgical factories. Scientists have found abnormally high cancer rates there.
“We don’t want to end up like them,” she said.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)