The rough side of recycling: Reported attacks on journalists investigating illegal waste trade proliferate
11 Aug 2022 --- Two independent freelance journalists have reported being attacked, threatened with death and having their media equipment confiscated while investigating allegations of illegal recycling operations in an industrial area in Türkiye for a Gezegen24 news article.
Environmental groups have warned that attacks on journalists investigating the alleged illegal management of material waste are increasingly common worldwide. Meanwhile, some Western nations have been accused of supporting suspect recycling businesses with plastic waste exports. Greenpeace recently described this activity as a new form of “colonialism.”
On July 27, 2022, Vedat Örüç and Elif Kurttaş claim to have discovered that the workforce at a recycling facility in Adana, Türkiye, which they were reportedly given permission to enter by a facility employee, was operating without protective equipment and included many Syrian refugees. The journalists were working to uncover pirate recycling businesses in the area, which they say have been illegally dumping unrecyclable waste in agricultural areas and setting fire to it.
Örüç also tells PackagingInsights that the companies he was investigating import waste from Europe, the US and Canada, adding: “Refugees who took refuge in Türkiye due to the Syrian civil war generally work in recycling facilities in unregistered, insecure and bad conditions – this is a crime.”
The journalists have filed a criminal complaint against their attackers with the Turkish police and expect officers to initiate an investigation.
A polymer recycling officer at one of the companies accused in connection with the attack, Akgul Recycling, tells PackagingInsights that the accusations are false and slanderous and that the company has initiated legal proceedings. Attempts have been made to contact Akbulut Plastik Recycling, the other company named by the journalists.
Türkiye’s recycling controversies
According to Eurostat, Türkiye has become the biggest importer of waste in the world since China withdrew from the market in 2017. Greenpeace found that Türkiye’s plastic imports increased by 13% in 2020, while plastic waste exported from Europe to Türkiye increased by 196 times in the last 16 years.
Örüç highlights that the recycling industry is not audited in Türkiye. The lack of regulation has enabled illegal businesses to easily import European waste and either scatter or burn it while often employing unregistered refugees. The plastics recycling industry should be controlled and limited by law to prevent these crimes, he stresses.
Likewise, Dr. Sedat Gundoğdu, a plastic waste researcher at Cukurova University, Türkiye, tells PackagingInsights that the Türkiye government must enforce stricter control over the recycling sector.
“Since there is currently no regular waste management infrastructure in Türkiye, unqualified people can operate in this sector. Many scraps, especially plastic waste, are collected by informal collectors and processed in unregistered warehouses,” he explains.
“Fires break out in these illegal facilities. Thus, irregularly collected waste, including imported waste entering the country illegally, are incinerated and destroyed. Since there are no effective investigations, these operations are becoming widespread. In addition, the employment of illegal immigrant workers… adds a human rights dimension to this illegality.”
Waking up the West
If Western countries do not want to be accomplices in these illegal activities, they should stop exporting plastic waste to Türkiye completely, says Gundoğdu. Meanwhile, Örüç argues that Western packaging companies must understand how and under what conditions recycling operations are carried out before exporting their waste.
“This process should be framed. Western companies should know which organizations are illegal and disregard human health in the name of recycling. In this context, Western companies should be warned, and controls need to be tightened even more,” he says.
A recent Greenpeace investigation found that global North nations regularly export toxic and hazardous pollutants to global South nations that are unable to sustainably manage the waste.
The report suggests that the UK, for example, exports over half of the plastic waste that it counts as “recycled” in the knowledge that these materials are sometimes dumped or burnt, causing great harm to the natural environment and local populations.
Meanwhile, circular economy regulations for plastic food packaging are becoming increasingly stringent, but the low availability of food-grade recyclate has left Western businesses struggling to meet recycled content targets – sometimes at the expense of financial penalties.
Journalists in jeopardy
Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) – of which Gundoğdu is a member – and other environmental organizations have released a Declaration of Solidarity after the reported attack on Örüç and Kurttaş. The statement endorsers stress that this is not the first time journalists or activists investigating the global plastic waste trade have been assaulted or threatened.
“In 2020, Turkish journalists working with a Dutch investigative journalist group were attacked and some of them were beaten. Similarly, in 2021, a group of activists was detained and recyclers forcibly deleted some of the images they took. Also, there was an attack on journalists who watched a recycling facility fire in a different part of Adana in 2021,” recalls Gundoğdu.
However, the attacks on journalists are not limited to Türkiye. The Declaration of Solidarity endorsers also spotlight similar attacks against journalists investigating the plastic waste trade in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Moreover, they highlight that the transnational shipment of waste is also linked with illegal activities. Since 2018, Interpol has documented a rise in illegal activities associated with the global waste trade. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime also reported that the shipping of plastic waste to countries including Türkiye and Indonesia has strong links with organized crime, including illicit trafficking of waste and money laundering.
Despite the growing dangers to journalists, Örüç and his colleagues remain defiant.
“If the companies that attack us do not commit crimes or do not employ workers in bad conditions, without security and without registration, what are they hiding?” he says.
“Journalists trying to reveal their crimes are their first targets, but attacks on journalists are not enough to cover up the crime. We will continue our journalism as long as these organizations continue to pollute the environment and inflict bad conditions on workers.”
By Joshua Poole, with additional reporting from Louis Gore-Langton
To contact our editorial team please email us at email@example.com
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.