Recycling facility workers in Turkey suffer from serious health problems due to processing-related toxins

Workers in Turkish recycling plants suffer serious health problems from the effects of harsh chemicals and air pollution, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a recent report.

According to the report published on Wednesday, toxins released during the recycling process of plastic products threaten the health of those working in the industry and people living close to recycling facilities. HRW interviewed workers in 24 recycling facilities from December 2021 to March 2022, including child workers, refugees and undocumented migrants.

One worker, identified as Ali, said he started working in a facility at the age of 13 and quit his job nearly a decade later after experiencing trouble breathing.

Turkey has become a major destination for the European Union’s plastic waste, and in 2020 it was the single largest recipient of EU plastic, importing nearly 450,000 tons. Research by HRW found that plastic recycling facility workers and nearby residents can be exposed to harmful chemicals when they inhale toxic dust or fumes emitted during the recycling process that threaten their health.

This exposure to air pollution puts workers and residents at the risk of developing life-long health conditions, including cancer and reproductive system problems.

Adana and Istanbul are currently the two cities that have the largest recycling plants in Turkey. Most of the recycling facilities in the cities are located close to residences, medical clinics, schools and parks.

This contravenes Turkish law, which requires facilities to be at a “healthy” distance from settlements. Moreover, HRW found that children as young as 9 years of age worked in these facilities, despite international and Turkish law prohibiting them from working in such hazardous conditions.

Plastic recycling facility workers and residents told HRW that they experienced respiratory problems, severe headaches, skin ailments, worked without protective equipment and had little to no access to medical treatment for occupational illnesses.

Despite legal obligations for official government sources and employers to share information on the impacts of air pollution and toxic exposure, workers and residents reported being in the dark about the impacts of plastic recycling on their health and how they can protect themselves.

Furthermore, workers said some facilities operated without licenses from authorities, making it easier for them to violate environmental and health standards. Most facilities were not inspected on a regular basis by occupational health and labor inspection authorities.

HRW called on the Turkish government to address health concerns related to plastics recycling and ensure that that any unlicensed plastic facilities are identified and required to cease operations and promptly apply for licenses. They added that authorities should carry out effective and regular unannounced inspections of facilities to ensure compliance with environmental regulations, close or relocate facilities located near homes and schools in contravention of laws and make information about the risks from air pollution readily available and accessible.

Additionally the Ministry of Health should carry out health impact studies in neighborhoods near plastic recycling facilities and make community health data accessible and available. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security should carry out regular and thorough occupational health examinations for workers in recycling facilities, ensure that employers are providing adequate protective equipment and ensure effective enforcement of the ban on child labor.

HRW also called on the EU to make sure their plastic waste exports do not contribute to human rights harms in Turkey and other importing countries and if possible put an end to waste export to non-EU countries.

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