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Turkey illustrates the enduring problem of global plastic waste

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan touched down in Dubai last Friday, along with countless other high-level Cop28 participants, and soon began listing his country’s climate accomplishments. Turkey sharply reduced its CO2 emissions this year and expects to achieve net-zero emissions by 2053.

Its share of electricity generated from renewables is 55 per cent, which ranks 5th in Europe and 12th globally, according to the President. Mr Erdogan also called for more equitable climate finance to further these efforts in Turkey and other emerging economies.

But would Turkey put those funds to good use? Its environmental record is rather spotty.

“We are undertaking significant measures despite the fact that our historical contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is less than one per cent,” Mr Erdogan said in his speech. This is true, but Turkey is climbing the scale and now ranks 14th globally in emissions. That is ahead of regional neighbours, such as Iran’s smaller economy, which is sixth, and Saudi Arabia’s similarly sized one, which is eighth. But it is not great.

Turkey was the last of the G20 economies to ratify the Paris Climate Accords, doing so in 2021. That decision was driven in part by wildfires that ravaged forests along the country’s coast that summer. Turkey’s dam construction on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has played a key role in devastating droughts in Iraq and Syria, eroding livelihoods and food production. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent research group that recently evaluated the climate response plans of more than 40 major states, gave Turkey the lowest possible ranking (“critically insufficient”) in most categories. In addition, the group described Turkey’s net-zero 2053 target as “poor”. Only Iran, which has yet to set a net-zero deadline, performed worse.


Erdogan called for more equitable climate finance to further these efforts in Turkey and other emerging economies

Dr Ezgi Ediboglu Sakowsky, senior researcher at Germany’s Max Planck Institute, says Turkey’s poor rating reflected an emissions target that allows for significant increases because it’s based on data from 2012, when the Turkish economy was at its peak. In essence, Ankara has tilted the playing field in its favour. “Turkey has set an emission target that it can almost achieve without any serious action,” argues Dr Sakowsky.

This is just the tip of the shrinking iceberg. Since China banned plastic imports in 2018, Turkey has emerged as the world’s top plastics importer. Europe’s second-largest producer of plastic, behind Germany, Turkey welcomes a great deal more plastic from the EU, UK and beyond — nearly 700,000 tonnes of it in 2021 alone.

“The world is currently in the midst of a plastics emergency,” the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) wrote early this year. Plastic production is set to increase in the coming years, yet just 6 per cent of global plastics are recycled. Thankfully, Turkey does better than that — recycling more than 18 per cent of its plastic waste, according to EIA.

Turkey’s First Lady, Emine Erdogan, in fact, also spoke at Cop28 on Friday, highlighting her Zero Waste Project, launched in 2017. She said the initiative has increased recycling from 13 per cent of the country’s waste to 30 per cent, and hopes to reach 60 per cent by 2035.

But Turkey’s plastic recycling plants, particularly the more than 20,000 in Mersin and Adana along the Mediterranean, pose their own challenges. A 2021 report from Human Rights Watch detailed how these plastics may be causing serious health troubles among plant workers, including asthma, respiratory illnesses, cancer and reproductive problems.

With locals unwilling to take these jobs, many plastic collectors and recycling plant workers are refugees, including thousands of Syrians and Afghans. Even so, Turkey’s government responded to the public outcry following the report by banning plastics imports. But two months later, Ankara quietly reversed course. Today, most of Turkey’s plastics end up in landfills, while some are illegally dumped or burned, inevitably leaching into groundwater, fields and waterways.

Turkey is not the only one to blame. The EIA points the finger at the West, particularly the EU, UK and US, and dubs their plastic export practices “waste colonialism”. Western economies have always produced more plastic than emerging states like Turkey, and with the discovery in recent years that the vast majority of it cannot be recycled, most have started exporting – foisting their toxic creations onto others.

Reports have found that European exporters regularly make additional payments, off the books, in order to falsify documents and include unrecyclable plastics in their shipments. Due to their country’s long-running economic crisis, Turkish importers are often forced to accept such practices.

As Cop28 opened, Britain’s King Charles III urged the gathering to take “genuine transformational action” on greenhouse gas emissions. The world produces some 400 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and if the plastics industry were a country, according to watchdog group Beyond Plastics, it would rank fifth in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Plastic would, therefore, be a great place to start the transformation. Top experts and officials aim to do just that at a Thursday event on plastic pollution and sustainable trade and waste management. Attendees will discuss open burning and problematic imports and seek ways to curb emissions while creating jobs. A panel discussion is unlikely to change the world, but it could spark committed talks that lead to hard work that ends up altering how we produce, handle and discard plastic.

Toward the end of his speech, Mr Erdogan offered to host Cop31 in Turkey in 2026. Three years can zip past in a flash, but here’s to hoping by then Turkey and the West are in a better place when it comes to plastic.

Updated: December 05, 2023, 7:00 AM

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