The government decision to charge for plastic bags beginning Jan 1, 2019 will be important in terms of raising awareness on the need to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic bags, according to the general manager of WWF Turkey. While Turkey ranks first among the polluters of the Mediterranean, the government’s recently-initiated zero waste program shows that waste management is now high on the agenda, according to Aslı Pasinli.
Q: Tell us about the significance of the new regulation that will come into force.
A: What we want is no single-use plastic at all, but it is a good way forward. Some companies tried it last year on a voluntary basis and we have observed a reduction of up to 60 percent in the use of plastic bags. When you start charging, people use significantly less.
I think the biggest achievement is also the fact that when you start charging people start asking why. Then you explain. It creates great awareness on what we are doing.
We are also of looking at where the money goes. A big chunk of the money will be collected from the consumers and we want to make sure that it is spent on plastic challenges on improving the recycling of plastic.
Q: Do you know where the money will go?
A: No. But in other countries they have been donated to some NGOs or to some environmental projects.
Q: What are the current challenges in terms of single-use plastic?
A: We need to focus on consuming less. It is an issue all around the world. In Turkey as well we have seen a tremendous increase in the consumption of single-use plastic like plastic bottles in the course of the last decade. And this is expected to increase until 2030. It is convenient, but it is over-used and not recycled properly. And in Turkey there is a huge difference between recycled plastic and consumed plastic. Turkey is the biggest polluter in the Mediterranean and we are number fourteen in mismanaged waste in the world. This is also due to the size of our population and our recycling system.
Q: But apparently Turkey is importing waste from Britain. Not only we pollute the world but we pay for imported waste?
A: China stopped importing waste and that changed the whole picture. Countries started to look for new markets to export their waste.
We don’t have an effective recycling system and we are highly populated and very dependent on single-use plastic, especially because of water. We don’t trust tap water. Turkey is one of the biggest markets for bottled water. And, as citizens, we are not aware of the consequences of our action.
All these add up and create over-consumption. Our infrastructure needs to be improved to accommodate this consumption.
Our per capita consumption of plastic bags is 430 bags annually, which is really high. The ministry’s target for the first year is to decrease to 90 per person. We dump 144 tons of daily plastic waste into the Mediterranean.
Q: What’s next?
A: The biggest chunk in single-use plastic is with the bottles. There, too, we are working on changing habits and improving recycling.
We are in contact with the Environment Ministry to introduce a deposit system to improve the recycling of plastic bottles. In other countries when you buy plastic bottle you pay a premium. You get your money back when you return it. That significantly improves the recycling of bottles. That is an area we are working on.
We have undertaken campaigns to change behaviors. We have been making calls to reduce consumption, encouraging those going to sports to take their jars with them. Vodafone gave up on their single-use plastic items and aims to save more than 4 million items a year.
We are working with some heavy consumption industries like the airline industry.
In addition, the use of straws is also very high in Turkey. Fish nets are another challenge. Once fishers are done using; they are leaving them in the water. We are working on sector-specific challenges as well.
Q: The regulation seems to be a good step forward but will it be implemented? Will there be better awareness not just on plastic bags but on other single-use plastics?
A: I am very hopeful. It is high on the agenda of our government. It has initiated a zero waste program. When an issue enters the agenda we have a good success record, like for example the smoke-free air campaign. No one would have believed that Turkey would change that much. We hear the same thing about plastic but when the government is very determined it works.
The zero waste movement of the government is showing their dedication. We are closely working with the Environment Ministry and we know it is very high on the agenda. Now the motto is our waste is an asset let’s not waste it. The campaign is being taken very seriously. Our first lady is pioneering it. The presidential palace is a zero waste area, which means that waste trucks do not enter the palace. Everything is recycled, including food waste. It is a good sign that it is adapted at the highest level.
Q: What are the other flagship projects you are working on?
A: River pollution is another highly important issue in Turkey. In Büyükmenderes basin (in the Aegean) we are working with the textile sector, big brands and with a local development agency. We are trying to have textile manufacturers invest in better technology which use less water and less chemical. When they invest, they also save. The return on investment is as low as six months. We are trying to facilitate by coordination, banks are helping the sector, and the development agency is providing grants for feasibility studies and investments. The key thing here is that it is a different way of doing business for NGOs. NGOs typically raise money and undertake a project that ends up being small. It is a pilot project that may or not be replicated and scaled.
In our approach we are not raising money or investing in it if someone else is doing it. We are facilitators, we don’t spend much money, but the investment we are trying to mobilize is 12 million euros. If it will be realized the impact will be bigger.
It is called a bankable project. It is a good business model which other NGOs are looking at to adapt. We are at the stage of completing feasibilities and starting investment in 2019.
If we can have this work we can actually replicate this approach in other industries, like marble and oil olive, because it is a win-win situation.
Normally, environmental projects seem like dead projects, like it is a one-way investment, as if you are doing it for your children, but it is actually very feasible. The environment wins, the sector wins.
We should not expect the government to fix it all. And the brands have sustainability commitments, too. This will improve the competitive advantage of Turkey. Famous brands like Walmart or H&M announced that they will not buy from non-clean producers. If we want to stay in the game we have to do it.