Story and photos by Lauryn Paiva and Emily Rudisill
ISTANBUL, TURKEY- Hundreds of school-aged children bounce eagerly in their seats recently in an amphitheater in the shadow of the Blue Mosque in the Fatih district in Istanbul.
They sport blue and white t-shirts and green cardboard visors that advertise Environmental Awareness Week over their school uniforms. Behind the crowd is a multi-tiered tree made from 10,000 recycled water bottles. Mayor Mustafa Demir has their attention as he shouts into a microphone at center stage.
This scene is one of the government’s chief strategies in trying to teach younger people about the importance of recycling in a city where littering has long been accepted.
“Recycling is a pretty new term to Turkish people as well as the local administrations and the government,” said Hakan Tiryaki, chairman of the board at Sualti Temizlik ve Bilinçlendirme Hareketi Dernegi or STH, a non-governmental organization created in 2005 to make the public aware of pollution in Istanbul, specifically marine contamination. “They just started to conceive and work to build the substructure.”
Municipality workers maintain tourist areas, such as the Blue Mosque and the streets surrounding the Grand Bazaar, constantly throughout the day. Bright tufts of grass and sweeping views of the Bosphorous punctuate the pristine streets.
Beyond the tourist attractions, however, the upkeep is less regulated. Tucked into dark corners and side streets of some of Istanbul’s most awe-inspiring landscapes, trash overflows in dumpsters and barrels. Discarded street food and rubbish clutter the roads. And much of it is thrown into, or blows into, the city’s main waterway.
The Bosphorous Straight divides Istanbul in two and creates part of the boundary between the European and Asian sides of the city. Ferries and cruise ships regularly pass through the straight, which connects the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, carrying locals and tourists.
While the waterway’s surface appears fresh, it is an aquatic dumping ground for food, trash from nearby restaurants and old boat parts. STH has pulled more than 16,000 pieces of solid waste from just a single section of the Bosphorus.
“As part of STH’s Harem Project, it is aimed at one location to be decontaminated completely from solid wastes, regenerated and protected. Since the beginning, in 2006, 15.000 pieces of solid wastes have been collected from the mentioned spot, and recorded,” said Tiryaki.
Turkey began reforming its waste management system under pressure from the European Union to reduce the negative effects of landfills.
According to a study conducted by the Institute of Resources and Energy Technology in 2010, Turkey produces 25 million tons of municipal solid waste annually. Sixty-five percent of the waste is disposed of in open dumps outside of the city. With a population of about 20 million people, Istanbul produces 14,000 tons of waste per day. According to a study conducted by the Turkish Court of Accounts, 34 percent of the waste in Turkey is dumped to these landfills and 66 percent is dumped to forests, waterways or other open spaces.
“The reason behind the recent undertakings concerning environment was the EU criteria, not the demands of Turkish people,” said Tiryaki. “It seemed like a positive progress, indeed, it didn’t work. The European Union just wanted the code of laws, so the government legislated.”
Turkey has been trying to become a member of the EU since 1959. For full membership the state must comply with EU standards covering everything from foreign policy to environmental protection.
In Istanbul, each municipality is responsible for controlling its own waste management program. The Fatih district has 100,000 homes under its jurisdiction. Amid the recycling festivities, Mehmet Arscoyl, the chief of trash collection services in Fatih, explained through a translator the management system.
Every day a structure of three groups, with 100 workers each, sets out in eight-hour shifts to sweep the streets and empty trash cans around the city. A fleet of garbage trucks goes door-to-door to collect household waste and drops it off at Halkali in Sultanahmet, the final stop before the waste is shuttled to a landfill on the outskirts of the city.
“Every minute they are working,” said Arscoyl motioning toward the fleet of orange vested workers scattered throughout the festival, sweeping and cleaning.
A force of self-employed trash collectors who work just as tirelessly to maintain litter-free streets supplements the trash mechanism set in place by the government. Acting independently of the municipality, their sole source of income is the money they collect from recycling centers in exchange for their troves of recyclable goods.
Large numbers of men wielding large, wheeled canvas carts can be seen throughout the cobbled streets of Istanbul scavenging for paper and other recyclable items. While they do not operate within the municipality’s workforce of street sweepers, they are just as much a staple of waste management in the city.
Working in the pre-dawn and early dusk hours, they forage trash-infested streets, separating eco-friendly products from the remnants of kabob lunches and other miscellaneous waste. They operate efficiently, running steadily up and downhill with their bulging, heavy carts. The paper and plastics are then sold to recycling companies for a profit.
“We call them environmental soldiers,” said Zeynep Kiliç, an environmental engineering student at Fatih University in Istanbul who was working at the festival.
But with all the mechanisms put in place by the municipality, the attitude toward trash disposal simply hasn’t changed. “Some people just don’t even care. They just throw it outside, but you don’t see it because the government comes quickly to clean it up,” said Erol Karagoz, 24, who works at Cempre Dizayn, a ceramics shop in Fatih.
Tiryaki cites the lack of enforcement of the legal regulations for this stagnant attitude.
“Each municipality organized a number of events [for environment week] which were essential to them but meaningless and ineffective to us,” said Tiryaki. “They brought kids together at the streets under the sun, made them compete with each other, gave speeches, distribute stuff and send them home.”
After the festivities at the amphitheater were over, the children began to file out, leaving behind the bottles from the complementary water and the cardboard hats they were given to wear. Candy wrappers and potato chip bags littered the bleachers and not one child seemed worried about the mess they had left behind. Why bother? Soon, a team of organizers will swoop in to pick up after the crowd.