Turkey’s plastic problem: Do we need to import it?

Our fear of the virus has driven us to use more plastic, more paper and more chemicals than we ever did. By allowing the importing of plastic from the EU to exceed quotas, the government is not acting any wiser.

It is a typical weekday morning on the beach in Çeşme, a holiday resort 70kms away from Izmir. Mothers walk their toddlers to a slightly wavy sea as grandparents look on. Lounged on a foldable chair, I am surrounded by what we have refers to as “bebekliler, göbekliler ve emekliler” – a contemptuous term for people with kids, pot bellies/pregnancies and pensions. As one of the women shouts at the other for not keeping her dog on a leash and gives a shrill lecture on the risks the rat-like dog poses to her precious kids, I cannot help but think that the new normal is nothing more than the old normal – at least on the beach.

That was until the reality of the COVID-19 hit me in the face.

Or more accurately, on the neck. 

One of the many surgical masks that strew the beach got caught in the wind and landed on my neck. This sparked a wave of panic amongst the two bickering women.

“Do you need a bit of cologne?” asks one, while the other reaches into her tote bag for an anti-bacterial wet wipe. While doing so, several used wet wipes dropped from her bag and got caught in the wind, further adding to the masks, paper towels and the plastic glasses on the beach.

Under obligatory or voluntary COVID-19 lockdowns, close to all my friends decided – and pledged to each other during boozy zoom talks – to be more mindful and less wasteful. Not only did we have too much “stuff” (clothes, plates, underwear, shoes – lucky us!) but we also participated in the environmental damage with our frequent – and sometimes arbitrary – flights and rides; overconsumption and consequent waste of food and by never bothering to recycle, on the grounds that we were simply too busy for it. Just like the European Union, which is banning single-use plastics, we intended to be less wasteful… and failed.

Our fear of the virus, which heightens as we march hastily into what we see as the new normal, has driven us to do just the opposite of what we aimed to do. We use more plastic, paper towels, wipes and chemicals than we ever did or would have considered sufficient. 

“Plastics have been essential in keeping hospitals running and protecting our frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re the bedrock of medical equipment and protective gear,” wrote Kristin Hughes, the director of Global Plastic Action Partnership, a public-private partnership launched by the World Economic Forum in 2018.  Yet she added that this was only part of the picture as the overall use of plastic had risen while people who remained home ordered take-outs, online grocers wrapped up under plastic or switched to single use utensils.

“The current increase in single-use plastics is understandable, but we also need to think about our planet’s long-term health,” she added.

On this Aegean morning, one can literally see these plastics, papers and wet-wipes ending with the sea. The Ilıca Beach, which is said to be one of the country’s largest public beaches, is notable for its special bins to throw away used masks and other disposables. But either due to the wind or to the recklessness of tourists, who have crammed at a nearby camping area, dozens of masks and plastic bottles litter the beach. 

Izmir’s sea front, the famed Kordon, is similar, with leftovers from the picnics on the lawn, some of which end up in the sea. It is likely that the same people who shared artsy photos of the sea front – with the vivid colors of the sky seen during the flight-free days – are now leaving their empty beer bottles, cans, plastic bags and masks. Homes and non-medical institutions have largely ignored a new regulation from the Ministry of Environment on throwing away masks and gloves separately. 

Dr. Aslı Başaran of Ege University says used plastic gloves or masks may have a huge impact on sealife, though research on it has yet to be carried out. “It would be important to see the effects,” says Başaran as the university prepares to conduct some research.

Beyond plastic and paper, hygiene products - which contain chemicals - also pose risks as they reach freshwater sources and the seas from wastewater sources, experts warn. 

Plastic waste and recycling has long been on Turkey’s agenda. Earlier this summer, the Turkish Ministry of Environment boasted that 93,000 tons of plastic packaging waste had been collected and recycled during the first four months of 2020. Pro-government media praised this figure, along with the First Lady’s Zero Waste campaign, claiming that about 45,000 tons of this waste includes plastic bags and packaging for drinks, cosmetics and hygiene products. “The latest figures show the country’s plastic packaging waste recycling capacity reached about 600,000 tons from 100,000 tons in the last decade,” the Sabah newspaper stated.  

Yet environmentalist NGOs are far from cheering for Turkey. Nihan Temiz Ataş, a project development officer at Greenpeace Mediterranean, says Turkey’s recycling system cannot manage its own waste effectively, let alone deal with the plastic waste it imports from European Union countries. “We cannot become a zero waste country by importing plastic garbage,” Ataş said last month. Greenpeace has announced in April that the amount of plastic waste imported by Turkey from the European Union (EU) countries had multiplied by 173 times since 2004 – increasing after China has banned plastic waste import in 2018. Of 14 million tons of waste imported from EU countries in 2019, 582,296 were plastics, according to Eurostat. Ataş and other experts warn that the companies that import waste from Europe have already exceeded their quota during the Covid-19 pandemic and that some of the waste may increase the spread of Covid-19. Other countries, such as Portugal, have stopped importing waste this year.

I have longed ceased to expect governments to do the right thing and count on international cooperation to come up with wise strategies that all states would readily adopt. Until proven wrong, I will merely carry out what I decided during my Damascene journey under the lockdown – less plastic, less waste and picking up my own garbage – and if necessary, others’ – on the beach, for what it’s worth.

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