(Istanbul) – Plastic recycling in Turkey harms the health of many people and degrades the environment for all, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 88-page report, ‘It’s Like They’re Poisoning Us’: The Health Impacts of Plastic Recycling in Turkey, documents the consequences of the Turkish government’s ineffective response to the health and environmental impacts of plastic recycling on the right to health. Air pollutants and toxins emitted from recycling affect workers, including children, and people living near recycling facilities.
The government fails to enforce laws and regulations that require strict licensing and regular, thorough inspections of recycling facilities and occupational health, which significantly worsens the health and environmental impacts of the facilities. Plastic waste imported from the European Union contributes significantly to these abuses.
“Turkey has regulations to protect people and the environment, but lack of enforcement increases the risk of serious and permanent health problems,” said Krista Shennum, Gruber Fellow in the Environment and Human Rights Division. at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish government must do more to fulfill its obligations to protect people from the effects of toxic plastic recycling.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 64 people, including 26 who currently work or have worked at plastic recycling facilities in Istanbul and Adana and 21 who live near plastic recycling facilities. Five of the workers were children at the time of the interview, and four adults interviewed started working at a plastic recycling facility as children.
Workers and residents of nearby communities described respiratory problems, severe headaches, skin conditions, lack of protective equipment, and limited or no access to medical care for work-related illnesses. Many of the facilities visited by Human Rights Watch were located in dangerous proximity to homes, in violation of Turkish laws and environmental regulations.
To be recycled, plastic waste is crushed, washed, melted at high temperature, then transformed into pellets. This process emits air pollutants and toxins which, without proper protection, can contribute to short-term health problems, including asthma, breathing difficulties and eye irritation. Scientists have also linked exposure to these toxins to an increased risk of cancer, neurological impacts and damage to the reproductive system. Additionally, plastics are made from fossil fuels and toxic additives and also release significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the climate crisis.
Since the Chinese government banned imports of plastic waste in 2018, many countries in the North have raced to find new destinations for their plastic waste. Due to its geographical proximity, its strong trade relations with the European Union and its membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Turkey has become the main destination for EU plastic waste, receiving nearly half of EU plastic waste exports in 2020 and 2021.
Many workers at the recycling facilities belong to Turkey’s most vulnerable populations and include children, refugees and undocumented migrants. Some workers, including undocumented migrants, said they had no access to medical services if they got sick or injured on the job. Fear of losing their jobs has made workers reluctant to raise concerns with their employers about harmful working conditions, including working without access to personal protective equipment.
Human Rights Watch found children working in plastic recycling facilities in Turkey, even though Turkish law prohibits them from working in such dangerous conditions and exposure to pollution and toxins is particularly damaging to their health .
“There is a huge cauldron where they cook the material, they keep adding water which comes back as steam,” said a 20-year-old waste picker in Adana who had worked at a recycling center in the city. plastic in his childhood. “When I inhaled that, my lungs felt like they were compressed and under pressure…I stopped working there two months ago, but I still have a breathing problem. “
Residents of nearby communities said the intense odors and pollution from recycling plastic made it difficult for them to sleep, open their windows and spend time outdoors.
“My 27-year-old sister died of colon cancer, that was 10 years ago,” says a 35-year-old man whose family has lived near recycling facilities for decades. He believes living near recycling facilities was a factor in the deaths of four loved ones. “My brother died at age 34 of lung cancer four years ago. I think it’s the effect of the recycling plants.
Human Rights Watch found that nearby workers and residents do not receive basic information about the levels of toxins in their environment, the risks from these toxic exposures, or ways to minimize these risks despite the law requiring authorities and Turkish employers to monitor conditions and share this information. .
Although it is mandatory for plastic recycling facilities to obtain licenses and permits from the relevant authorities, it is unclear how many meet this requirement and how many operate without a license. The licenses require compliance with environmental and occupational health standards that would limit health risks. For licensed facilities, environmental, occupational health and labor inspections often fail to adequately examine environmental and health conditions.
Human Rights Watch wrote to key ministries and municipalities in Turkey to share initial research results and seek information on plastic recycling facilities, air quality data, inspection reports, rates of diseases linked to exposure to toxic substances, data on the import of plastic waste and child labour. In some cases, Human Rights Watch did not receive a response. In other cases, the answers received were incomplete and did not answer the questions posted. For example, the Ministry of Environment, Town Planning and Climate Change said it had undertaken thousands of inspections of waste disposal and recycling facilities since 2018 and imposed penalties. fines facilities and shut down unlicensed ones. Yet the ministry did not provide specific data on plastic recycling facilities, and the findings of the Human Rights Watch report point to the need for more resolute action to address widespread violations of the right to health.
Turkey’s Ministry of Environment, Town Planning and Climate Change should conduct independent and thorough inspections of recycling facilities to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and report on air pollution and environmental risks. exposure to readily available and accessible toxins, 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 facilities.
Countries that export plastic waste, including those to the EU, should take steps to more effectively manage their plastic waste domestically, rather than shipping their waste to countries whose government enforcement of environmental and work is weak or inadequate. The Turkish government is expected to reinstate the ban on importing plastic waste for recycling, which it introduced in July 2021 but quickly lifted.
“Europe’s wealthiest countries send their waste 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 plastic exporting countries should take responsibility for their own plastic waste, end the export of plastic to Turkey and reduce the amount of plastic they produce and consume.”