In Kartepe, an industrial city in the northwest of the country, one of these sites was closed in December by the authorities after three fires broke out there in less than a month.
One of them lasted more than fifty hours, giving the plastics stored there time to spit their toxic black smoke over this region wedged between the Sea of Marmara and the mountains.
“We don’t want our lakes and springs to be polluted”, storm Beyhan Korkmaz, an environmental activist from the city, worried about the release of dioxins emitted by a dozen similar fires that have occurred in less than two years within a radius of five kilometers.
“Should we wear masks?” Asks the activist.
Last year in Turkey, fires inside plastic waste reprocessing centers took place every three days: from 33 in 2019, they rose to 65 in 2020 and 121 in 2021, according to Sedat’s count Gündogdu, researcher specializing in plastic pollution at Cukurova University in Adana (south).
– “Plastic lobby” –
Over the same period, after China banned their import in early 2018, Turkey has become the leading importer of European plastic waste ahead of Malaysia.
Nearly 520,000 tonnes arrived in the country in 2021, adding to the 4 to 6 million tonnes generated each year by 84 million Turks, according to data compiled by the Turkish branch of the NGO Greenpeace.
Many of these wastes end up in the south of the country, in the province of Adana in particular, where companies operating illegally have been closed in recent years.
Other containers of waste arrive through the ports of Izmir (west) and Izmit (north-west), not far from Kartepe.
“The problem is not importing plastic from Europe but importing non-recyclable plastics,” says Baris Calli, professor of environmental engineering at Marmara University (Istanbul), whose “[the ] feeling is that most of these fires are not a coincidence.”
According to him, only 20 to 30% of imported plastic waste is recyclable. “Residues have to be sent to incineration plants but this comes at a cost, which is why some companies are trying to find easy ways to dispose of them.”
Sedat Gündogdu finds it curious that “most of these fires break out at night” and in the outlying sections of the reprocessing centers, far from the machines.
In a report published in August 2020, the international police organization Interpol was concerned about an “increase in the burning of landfills and illegal waste in Europe and Asia”, citing in particular Turkey.
Since October 2021, a regulation provides for the withdrawal of its operating authorization from any company in the sector found guilty of arson.
Asked by AFP about the number of companies sanctioned, the Ministry of the Environment and the vice-president of the waste and recycling branch of the Union of Chambers of Commerce of Turkey (Tobb) did not answer.
“The ministry does not have enough teams to investigate carefully, or perhaps it does not want to”, slips Baris Calli, for whom “the lobby of the plastics industry has been strengthened” in recent years in Turkey.
According to the association of Turkish recyclers (Gekader), the plastic waste sector generates 1 billion dollars a year and employs some 350,000 people in 1,300 companies.
– “A ray of sunshine is enough” –
In her office overlooking a run-down warehouse in Kartepe, where plastics are sorted before being recycled or legally incinerated, Aylin Citakli denies accusations of arson.
“I don’t believe it,” sweeps away the environment manager of the sorting center. “These are easily flammable materials, anything can start a fire, a ray of sunshine is enough,” she says.
Faced with the outcry caused by the publication of images of waste from Europe, dumped in ditches and rivers, Turkey announced in May 2021 the ban on the import of plastic waste.
Before lifting it a week after its entry into force.
In Kartepe, Beyhan Korkmaz is worried about these renunciations and the future of her region, where she was born and has lived for 41 years.
The activist cites the example of Dilovasi, a town 40 kilometers away which is home to many chemical and metallurgical factories and where scientists have found abnormally high cancer rates. “We don’t want to end up like them,” she says.