Turkey Resumes Trade That Made It Europe’s Top Trash Destination
(Bloomberg) -- Turkey is reversing a short-lived ban on imports of some plastic waste, prompting environmental groups to warn of the threat posed to farmlands, air and water resources in what was Europe’s top destination for trash.
Authorities have eased restrictions only imposed in May on polyethylene, found in everyday products from grocery bags to water bottles, according to an official decree published this month after intense lobbying by industry groups.
In the five years leading up to the ban, Turkey received more garbage from Europe than any other country. While it’s supposed to be mostly recycled, images of garbage piled in fields earlier this year sparked a public backlash, with Turkish importers accused of illegally dumping thousands of tons of trash.
“This is a colossal renunciation with implications for the environment,” said Nihan Temiz Atas, biodiversity project leader from Greenpeace Mediterranean. “Authorities had assured us that the ban on imports was meant to last.”
Turkey’s imports of plastic waste jumped nearly 200 times from 2004, with much of the increase in the last four years after China announced it was stopping the practice. The U.K. exported 210,000 tons of plastic waste to Turkey in 2020, while Germany sent 136,000 tons.
A typical deal allows importers to receive a mix of recyclable plastic and other waste of no value. The transaction can lower raw material costs for Turkish plastics producers, but it transfers the responsibility for recycling from European countries, where the waste is collected, to Turkey.
Removing unwanted chemicals from plastic is difficult and expensive, and some companies opt to incinerate materials instead. Microplastic Research Group, a team of Turkish scholars tracking the recycling industry, says at least 68 fires were reported at Turkish plants in the first half of this year, up from eight in the whole of 2016.
Turkish companies “get their raw material cheaper. European firms get rid of their trash. And tons of leftover plastics end up getting dumped into Turkey,” said Sedat Gundogdu, the group’s chief.
A study for WWF found that the coastline near the southern city of Adana is the most polluted stretch of the entire Mediterranean, with the city’s twin rivers responsible for 9% of plastic pollution entering the sea each year.
Turkish industry argues that allowing imports doesn’t necessarily mean compromising on environmental standards. The government has toughened regulations on how waste must be handled, said Yavuz Eroglu, the head of PAGEV, an umbrella organization for plastics firms.
“With the new chip-based mobile tracking system, it will be possible to know the firms that receive these imports,” Eroglu said.
China was receiving half the world’s recyclable waste when it formulated its ban on importing plastic in 2017, and then implemented it the following year.
The move led to surge of exports to Asian countries including Malaysia and Bangladesh, fueling public-health concerns. The European Union responded by stopping exports of plastic waste to non-OECD nations, making Turkey its top destination.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.