Waste and greed to merge in Turkey's new environmental law

This week, a bill for the Turkish Environment Agency will be debated at the parliament. This bill will recycle the profits of recyclable waste using a process that will make it even more profitable. The opposition should make efforts to stop this, but this will be difficult for them with their current neoliberal mindset.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have a propensity for forgetting the people during the pandemic, but it rarely forgets its own self-interests. So much so that, nowadays, the AKP has been treating the politics of parliament like a stage play. It passes new laws in epic fashion complete with all the dramatic flourishes, then tacks on another law, and another, and spits out an entirely new system. The AKP has continuously taken the functions of the existing Wealth Fund model, the city hospitals model, and the customer-guaranteed bridge model and used them in order to create new laws which similarly benefits it. It does so openly, candidly and without any attempt to hide their aim from the opposition. The AKP has made it clear that every endeavor seeks to answer the same questions: How can I turn these people and this land into profit? What sector should I destroy next in order to create a new market which benefits me?

While this AKP-capitalism has been on the rise, the opposition does not seem to comprehend what is going on and has been neglecting its duties of monitoring the government and holding it accountable. After a new law is passed by parliament and goes into effect, the opposition seems only to notice its existence after the first scandal breaks. This is because not only has the regime adapted to this system, but the opposition has adapted and begun to act in a way that is acceptable for the regime.

The subject I am referring to in this case is the new bill entitled, A Proposal for the Establishment of the Turkish Environment Agency and Amendments to Certain Laws. We should not categorize this as a single-issue bill. We may have done so for the Electricity Market Law and the Unemployment Insurance Fund, but these laws could be boiled down to one clear topic. In this latest bill, several jurisdictions have been removed from the Ministry of Environment. They are doing so through this bill which speaks as if the Ministry of Environment is being built from scratch. It is unclear whether the intention of the bill is to start the agency from scratch. Perhaps someone could ask. But so far, no one has.

The bill was submitted to Parliament on Oct. 12 and passed the Environment Committee on Oct. 14 and 15 with remarkable speed. Continuing to be remarkable, its final version was published on Oct. 15 via the environment committee report. There was an extensive news story written on the bill by Duvar's Nergis Demirkaya on Oct. 8 and then, nothing. Perhaps our government and media have assumed that nobody is interested.

The bill is set to be debated in the General Assembly of Parliament this week. Most likely we will see the same old routine from the media in their coverage of the bill. Similarly, we will see the same attempts from the opposition and, while we are on the subject, most certainly the same actors will take the stage.

But none will go beyond dramatic flourishes in order to speak the truth.
AKP capitalism

In order to understand this proposed law, you have to know your history. This includes the history of the leadership and the history of the opposition when it comes to addressing bills of this nature.

Perhaps you recall, it was only two years ago that the plastic bag law was in front of Parliament. Our political parties got together and put on their usual show. We tried to say that the numbers they were putting out were being politicized, just as the plastic bags were. A number articles even came out stating that, although it may seem that plastic bags bearing a price was a simple solution, it was really mother nature and our society which would end up paying.

The Deputy Minister of Environment and Urbanization, Mehmet Emin Birpınar, who orchestrated putting a price on plastic bags, made sure to take center stage for this bill’s production.

The deputy minister is specifically the person who is able to address these issues, and has made sure to do so with little cost to private companies. In fact, he often makes his solutions profitable to them. He is so successful in this that, while 3.5 million tons of plastic waste are buried in Turkey each year, he proposed a solution for only 100,000 tons of plastic bags. He even did so in a way which saved private companies from losing 50 million liras in plastic bag sales and turned it into profit. This new regulation also provided the state with extra funds. Deputy minister Birpınar has collected 400 million liras from the public in 2019 alone.

It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Our deputy minister killed not only two birds with one stone, but maybe 10 birds, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands with just one regulation.

No other deputies seemed to want to draw any attention to this. That is right, no one pointed out to deputy minister Birpınar that, while he was focused on saving private companies from 50 million liras in loses, he was costing the public an additional 400 million liras. All of this resulted in 4 million tons of plastics to be buried. And nobody has thought to point this out.

The “opposition” front

The government has, with this new bill, once again submitted a bill with zero additional documents or reports and, thus, with zero factual foundation. Our parliamentary deputies must believe the included statements of one or two bureaucrats and consider them sufficient to push the bill forward. Perhaps they did not believe the statements, but they made no indication of this as they did not question their validity any further. This kind of behavior begs the question: What is the opposition doing in response to their government’s efforts to turn everything into cash?

The number of political parties that have any kind of waste policy is zero. 
The number of political parties that have even a single document on waste is zero.

The number of political parties processing the amendments and preparing a final version is also zero.

With so many zeros around, it seems obvious that the opposition parties are more “acting” as if they are opposing rather doing anything of substance. The reason for this is that all of our political parties will fight tooth and nail in order to defend neoliberalism. Even the CHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP are guilty of this.

There are so many neoliberal arguments being thrown around that there is hardly room to discuss how a neoliberal civil society should operate, and how the focus should be on the people and that this law would starve waste collectors. This neoliberal obsession has reached such a level that our parties have foregone any emphasis on truth and the realities of people’s daily lives. One deputy inquired as to why no environmental organizations had been invited. His question assumes that the focus of this bill is the environment. The deputy who prepared the bill responded saying that he used the report of an environmental foundation. What the deputy who asked the question does not know, is that officials from the foundation which created this report accompanied Emine Erdoğan on her visit to Salda Lake, in a campaign to legitimize the continued occupation of this area. This is because neoliberal participation has been forcibly injected into our veins.

The discussion was not limited to only this exchange. During the bill’s committee meeting, an HDP deputy said, “Yesterday, our colleagues who submitted the bill made a comprehensive presentation. We do not have a specific criticism of this presentation. There seems to be a logic to everything put forth. There is an inherent consistency to all of these pieces, in all the texts.” An CHP deputy said, “We are not categorically against the establishment of a Turkish Environment Agency.” Can we not expect anything more from our deputies than this offering of a blank check?

However, the most upsetting part is that the CHP is now eager to appoint members to the executive board of the new Turkish Environmental Agency, which will replace the Ministry of Environment and consist of a structure similar to the Wealth Fund. The CHP deputy in charge of environmental affairs, Ali Öztunç, wants to suggest that they appoint members to the board of this new agency and he believes he will do so with a clear conscious.

Is caring now political?

The picture looks grim, does it not? Another problem for Turkey is laid out in front of us. At the 22nd International Psychoanalytical Meeting of Istanbul, Sally Weintrobe, a practicing psychoanalyst, gave a presentation on neoliberal indifference in regard to the current climate crisis. Weintrobe argued that, in order to change our current neoliberal culture of indifference and act on behalf of our climate, we must first start to think about the climate, and in order to think about the climate, we have to consider our feelings on it.

With this in mind, let us return to our topic. Here are the main points:

1- Political parties are against the new Turkish Environment Agency, but they have no strong argument against it.
2- The strategies used in the past with the plastic bag law, are being used again. That single-issue change was a rehearsal. This will be a fully integrated policy overhaul.
3- The Turkish Environment Agency will gut the Ministry of Environment. The most profitable parts will be transferred to the new agency, but it will be presented to us as an environmental agency, not what it is, which is an environmental wealth fund.
4- Waste management companies will go bankrupt or they will become government subcontractors completely beholden to its will.
5- The waste industry will completely break down, and this will put additional burdens on society. This issue of additional burdens was mentioned at a meeting of the Ankara Chamber of Industry.
6- Municipalities are already failing in their waste management. This problem will worsen and they will become completely reliant the government. We should note here that, embarrassingly, not all municipalities object to the Turkish Environment Agency.
7- This bill will take the profits of wastes collection and management away from the waste companies and workers. It will enslave them and the burden of this will be dumped back onto the public.
Now, here comes the real scandal: The waste that is able to generate profit will belong to the Turkish Environment Agency, while that which does not generate profit will be burned in accordance with the Electricity Market Law, which was approved last week. It will be considered “biomass” and the public will pay for it. What else can all of this be call if not a tragic stage play?

Save the best for last

Last week, the bill for the Electricity Market Law was approved in the General Assembly of Parliament. This law now allows non-recyclable waste to be burned and refers to it as “biomass”. This week, the bill for the Turkish Environment Agency will be debated. This bill will recycle the profits of recyclable waste using a process that will make it even more profitable. The opposition should make efforts to stop this, but this will be difficult for them with their current neoliberal mindset. As a result, the government is not afraid of the opposition parties at all. What it is afraid of is organized committed individuals who generate policies not dogma. They can feel them breathing down their necks. Let me leave with this confession from the AKP deputy from Bursa, a member of the environment committee:

“Look, there was a plastic bag law we issued last term. Friends, in all honesty, this plastic bag law hit us hard in the elections. We were dragged through the mud. I know this. When the topic is the environment, I know you all will not have such thoughts. You will definitely not become as involved in such interest-related arrangements.”