Children as young as nine work in plastic waste recycling centers in Turkey, exposing them to serious and permanent health problems, Human Rights Watch said.
Workers, including children, and people living in homes located “dangerously close” to the centers told researchers they were suffering from respiratory problems, severe headaches and skin conditions.
In a new report, HRW accuses the Turkish government of worsening the health and environmental impact on workers by failing to enforce laws that require strict licensing and regular inspections of recycling centers.
The EU, the largest exporter of plastic waste to Turkey between 2017 and 2021, and the UK, the largest plastic exporter over the same period, also contributed ‘significantly’ to rights violations. health and environment in Turkey, according to the report.
After China banned plastic waste imports in 2018, EU plastic waste exports to Turkey skyrocketed by 1,200% from 38,804 tonnes to 446,432 tonnes in 2021. In 2021, the UK exported 122,898 tonnes of plastic waste to the country, a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Krista Shennum, Gruber Fellow at HRW and lead researcher on the report, said: “The Turkish government is not implementing its laws. It has regulations to protect people and the environment, but lack of enforcement increases the risk of serious lifelong health problems.
“Europe’s richest 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,” she said. .
“We call on the UK, EU and other countries to manage their own waste domestically rather than export it to Turkey, where it harms human health and human rights.”
Turkey should reinstate the plastic waste import ban it imposed in July 2021 but then quickly lifted, she added.
Lauren Weir, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international campaign group, said: “The findings released by Human Rights Watch are deeply concerning and provide further evidence of the serious negative impacts of the global trade in plastic waste, not only in non-OECD countries. but also in OECD countries.
In Turkey, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to work in hazardous waste facilities, including plastic recycling facilities. Exposure to these wastes is particularly detrimental to the health of children.
Yet HRW, which interviewed 64 people in the southern Turkish cities of Adana and Istanbul, including 26 who currently work or have worked in plastic recycling facilities, found that a third had gone into labor as an infant or was a child when interviewed. Some workers said they saw imported foreign waste, but HRW did not identify the source of the plastic waste.
Ahmet, 20, who has worked as a waste picker and at a plastic recycling center in Adana for five years, told HRW about a “huge cauldron” that was emitting gases at the recycling center.
“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,” did he declare.
Researchers found that workers at Turkish recycling plants include refugees and undocumented migrants. Some said they would not have access to medical facilities if they fell ill or were injured.
Residents of nearby communities said the intense smells and pollution from recycling plastic made it difficult for them to open windows or spend time outdoors. Many facilities were “dangerously close” to homes, schools or hospitals, in violation of Turkish laws and environmental regulations, the report said.
As it is recycled, plastic waste is shredded and melted at high temperatures, a process that releases airborne pollutants and toxins. Without proper protection, toxins can contribute to asthma, difficulty breathing 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.
Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, also release greenhouse gases, contributing to the climate crisis.
Turkey’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security told HRW it carried out 105 inspections of plastic waste recycling centers between 2017 and 2021, 26 of which violated the law. Nearly 300 scheduled inspections and 709 unscheduled inspections were conducted between 2013 and June 29, 2022, regarding working conditions, business conduct and occupational health, he said.
A spokesman for the European Commission acknowledged that “our waste is our responsibility” and said much stricter measures to control its exports had recently been proposed.
These include taking action, including suspending exports, where there was “insufficient assurance” that exports were being managed sustainably. The proposals include an obligation for EU exporters to independently audit facilities at the destination of the waste. The measures did not include a blanket ban, which would be inconsistent with international trade rules, the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK should manage its waste more at home.
“We are committed to banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and cracking down on illegal waste exports, including to OECD countries like Turkey. Those who export waste in violation of legal requirements can face a two-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine.
A spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in London said in response to HRW’s report that waste recycling facilities in Turkey were “frequently inspected throughout the year” to check whether they were operating legally. They added that the distances of recycling plants from homes, hospitals and schools were legally regulated in compliance with health criteria.
Citing a response from the Turkish Ministry of Labor and Social Security to the HRW report, he said: “Turkish labor law prohibits all forms of child labor in accordance with international standards. The ministry also carries out in-depth studies to support the legislative provisions on the ground.