(Istanbul) – Plastic recycling in Turkey is harming the health of many people and degrading 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 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, greatly exacerbating facilities’ impacts on health and the environment. Plastic waste imported from the European Union is significantly contributing to these abuses.
“Turkey has regulations to protect people and the environment, but a lack of enforcement is increasing people’s risk of serious, life-long health conditions,” said Krista Shennum, Gruber Fellow in the Environment and Human Rights division at Human Rights Watch. “The government of Turkey 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 work or previously worked in 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 began working in a plastic recycling facility as children.
Workers and residents of neighboring communities described respiratory problems, severe headaches, skin ailments, lack of protective equipment, and little to no access to medical treatment for occupational illnesses. Many of the facilities Human Rights Watch visited were located dangerously close to homes, in contravention of Turkish laws and environmental regulations.
To be recycled, plastic waste is shredded, washed, melted at high temperatures, and then turned into pellets. This process emits air pollutants and toxins that, without adequate protections, can contribute to short-term health problems, including asthma, difficulty breathing, and eye irritation. Scientists have also linked exposure to these toxins to an increased risk of cancer, neurological impacts, and reproductive system harm. In addition, 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 plastic waste imports in 2018, many countries in the Global North have scrambled to find new destinations for their plastic waste. Because of its geographic proximity, strong trade relations with the European Union, and status as an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member, Turkey has become the primary destination for the EU’s plastic waste, receiving nearly half of the EU’s plastic waste exports in 2020 and 2021.
Many recycling facility workers are from the most vulnerable populations in Turkey and include children, refugees, and undocumented migrants. Some workers, including undocumented migrants, said they do not have access to medical services if they get sick or are injured in the workplace. Fear over losing their jobs made workers wary about raising concerns with their employers over harmful working conditions, including working without access to personal protective equipment.
Human Rights Watch found that children work in plastic recycling facilities in Turkey even though Turkish law prohibits them from working in such hazardous conditions and the exposure to pollution and toxins is especially damaging to their health.
“There’s a huge cauldron where they’re cooking the material, they keep adding water which comes back up as steam,” said a 20-year-old waste picker in Adana who had worked at a plastic recycling center as a child. “When I inhaled that, it would feel like my lungs were squeezed and under pressure … I stopped working there two months ago, but I still have a problem with breathing.”
Residents of neighboring communities said intense odors and pollution from plastic recycling prevent them from sleeping, opening their windows, and spending time outside.
“My 27-year-old sister died of colon cancer, this was 10 years ago,” said a 35-year-old man whose family lived for decades near recycling facilities. He believes that living near recycling facilities is a factor in the deaths of four relatives. “My brother died at 34 years of lung cancer four years ago. I believe it is the effect of the recycling plants.”
Human Rights Watch found that workers and nearby residents are not provided with basic information about levels of toxins in their environment, risks from those toxic exposures, or ways to minimize those risks despite the law requiring Turkish authorities and employers to monitor conditions and share this information.
While it is mandatory for plastic recycling facilities to acquire licenses and permits from the relevant authorities, it is unclear exactly how many meet this requirement and how many operate without licenses. Licenses require adherence to 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 findings and seek information on plastic recycling facilities, air quality data, inspection reports, rates of illness related to toxic exposure, plastic waste import data, and child labor. In some cases, Human Rights Watch did not receive a response. In other instances, the responses received were incomplete and did not provide answers to the questions posted. For example, the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change said that it had undertaken thousands of inspections of waste disposal and recycling facilities since 2018 and fined facilities and closed unlicensed ones. Yet, the ministry did not provide specific data for plastic recycling facilities, and the findings of Human Rights Watch's report show the need for more resolute steps to address pervasive violations of the right to health.
The Turkish 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 the risks of air pollution and toxin exposure 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 facilities.
Countries that export plastic waste, including those in the EU, should take steps to more effectively manage their plastic waste domestically, rather than shipping their waste to countries with weak or inadequate government enforcement of environmental and labor regulations. The Turkish government should reinstate the ban on imported plastic waste for recycling, which it introduced in July 2021 but quickly lifted.
“Europe’s wealthiest countries are sending their trash to Turkey, consigning 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, end the export of plastic to Turkey, and reduce the amount of plastic they produce and consume.”