Turkey: Plastic Recycling Harms Health, Environment

(Istanbul) – Plastic recycling in Turkey harms the health of many and worsens the environment for everyone, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 88-page report, ‘It’s as If They’re Poisoning Us’: The Health Impacts of Plastic Recycling in Turkey, documents the right-to-health consequences of the Turkish government’s ineffective response to the health and environmental impacts of plastic recycling. Air pollutants and toxins released during recycling affect workers, including children, and people living near recycling facilities.

The government’s failure to enforce laws and regulations that require strict permits and regular, thorough inspections of recycling facilities and health and safety at work greatly exacerbates the facilities’ health and environmental impacts. Plastic waste imported from the European Union contributes significantly to these abuses.

“Turkey has regulations designed to protect people and the environment, but lack of enforcement increases the risk of serious, lifelong health problems,” said Krista Shennum, Gruber Fellow in the Environment and Human Rights practice at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish government needs to do more to meet its obligations to protect people from the effects of toxic plastic recycling.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 64 people, including 26 who currently or previously worked at plastics recycling plants in Istanbul and Adana, and 21 who live near plastics recycling plants. Five of the workers were children at the time of the interview, and four adults interviewed began working as children at a plastics recycling plant.

Workers and residents in neighboring communities described respiratory problems, severe headaches, skin conditions, a lack of protective gear and little to no access to medical treatment for occupational diseases. Many of the facilities Human Rights Watch visited were in dangerous proximity to homes, in violation of Turkish laws and environmental regulations.

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In order to be recycled, plastic waste is shredded, washed, melted at high temperatures and then processed into pellets. This process releases airborne pollutants and toxins that, without proper protection, can contribute to short-term health problems such as asthma, breathing difficulties, and eye irritation. Scientists have also linked exposure to these toxins to an increased risk of cancer, neurological effects, and damage to the reproductive system. In addition, plastics are made from fossil fuels and toxic additives, and also release significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.

Since the Chinese government banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, many countries in the Global North have struggled to find new destinations for their plastic waste. Due to its geographic proximity, strong trade ties with the European Union and its status as a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Turkey has become the top destination for the EU’s plastic waste, receiving almost half of the EU’s plastic waste in 2020 in 2021.

Many recycling plant workers come from Turkey’s most vulnerable communities, including children, refugees and undocumented migrants. Some workers, including undocumented migrants, said they had no access to medical care if they became ill or injured on the job. Fear of losing their jobs made workers reluctant to raise concerns about harmful working conditions, including working without access to personal protective equipment, with their employers.

Human Rights Watch found that children work in plastic recycling plants in Turkey even though Turkish law prohibits them from working in such hazardous conditions, and exposure to pollution and toxins is particularly harmful to their health.

“There’s a huge cauldron where they cook the material, they keep adding water that comes back up as steam,” said a 20-year-old garbage collector in Adana, who worked at a plastic recycling center as a child. “When I breathed that in, it felt like my lungs were being squeezed and under pressure … I stopped working there two months ago, but I’m still having trouble breathing.”

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Residents in neighboring communities said intense odors and pollution from plastic recycling prevent them from sleeping, opening their windows and spending time outdoors.

“My 27-year-old sister died of colon cancer, that was 10 years ago,” said a 35-year-old man whose family had lived near recycling plants for decades. He believes living near recycling plants is a factor in the deaths of four relatives. “My brother died of lung cancer four years ago at the age of 34. I believe that is the effect of the recycling plants.”

Human Rights Watch found that workers and local residents are not given basic information about the levels of toxins in their area, the risks from these toxic exposures, or ways to minimize those risks, even though Turkish authorities and employers are legally required to monitor conditions and identify these to pass on information.

While it is mandatory for plastics recycling plants to obtain licenses and permits from the relevant authorities, it is unclear exactly how many meet this requirement and how many operate without licences. Permits require compliance with environmental and occupational safety standards that would limit health risks. At licensed facilities, environmental, occupational health and safety and labor inspections often fail to adequately investigate environmental and health conditions.

Human Rights Watch wrote to key ministries and municipalities in Turkey to share initial research and gather information on plastic recycling facilities, air quality data, inspection reports, disease rates associated with toxic exposures, data on plastic waste imports, and child labor. In some cases, Human Rights Watch received no response. In other cases, the responses received were incomplete and did not provide answers to the questions asked. For example, the Department of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change said it had conducted thousands of inspections of waste disposal and recycling facilities since 2018, fined facilities and closed unlicensed facilities. However, the department has not provided specific data for plastics recycling plants, and the Human Rights Watch report’s findings show that more decisive steps are needed to address pervasive violations of the right to health.

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Turkey’s Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change should conduct independent and thorough inspections of recycling facilities to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and to make information about air pollution and toxin exposure risks readily available and accessible, Human Rights Watch said. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security should enforce Turkey’s ban on child labor in hazardous workplaces, including plastic recycling plants.

Countries that export plastic waste, including those in the EU, should take steps to manage their plastic waste domestically more effectively, rather than sending their waste to countries with weak or insufficient government enforcement of environmental and labor regulations. The Turkish government should reintroduce the ban on imported plastic waste for recycling that was introduced in July 2021 but was quickly lifted.

“Europe’s wealthiest countries send their garbage to Turkey, exposing some of Turkey’s most vulnerable communities, including children, refugees and migrants, to serious environmental and health risks,” Shennum said. “The EU and individual plastic-exporting countries should take responsibility for their own plastic waste, stop exporting plastic to Turkey and reduce the amount of plastic they produce and consume.”

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