x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Turkey aims to bin the plastic bag

The government launches a campaign to limit the risk to the environment as Turks throw away millions of plastic bags.

ISTANBUL // You get one whenever you go to a shop, even if it is just to buy a loaf of bread or a chocolate bar. In Turkey, plastic bags are everywhere, with millions being thrown away, and their use is causing a growing environmental problem. In response, the government has launched a campaign to discourage their use. Supermarket chains and environmental groups have also been calling on consumers to change their ways.

"People use a lot of bags," Oktay Demirkan, a spokesman for the Turkish Environmental Platform, a non-government organisation, said yesterday. "There are alternatives like shopping nets and canvas bags, but not many people make use of them." People have to be informed about the risks that plastic bags pose for the environment, Mr Demirkan said. Turkey produces between 1.5 and two million tonnes of packaging waste a year, much of which is made up by discarded plastic bags.

Every Turkish citizen uses an average of 312 plastic bags a year, according to newspaper reports. In Istanbul, the country's biggest city with about 12 million people, around 10,000 tonnes of waste are being collected every day, according to figures provided by the municipality. Plastic bags and other plastic waste make up 950 tonnes, or almost 10 per cent, of the total. Experts have been warning for some time that the widespread use of plastic bags by Turkish consumers is a burden for the country's future. "It is not right to use a kind of material that takes 400 to 1,000 years to be recycled in nature so ubiquitously and freely," Tevfik Ozlu, a professor of medicine at the Black Sea Technical University in Trabzon, told Turkish media. He said the fact that Turkish consumers were offered plastic bags for free was encouraging their use "beyond the actual need".

Environmental activists say the government has so far not done enough to convince shops and customers to look for alternatives. "It is a big source of sorrow that there are no serious efforts despite what we have been saying for a long time," Mustafa Goktas, the chairman of the Association for the Protection of the Environment and Consumer Rights, a pressure group, said this month. Mr Goktas earlier warned that one widely used kind of plastic bag made of recycled material could contain carcinogens. He was referring to black plastic bags that are mostly used by vendors in open-air markets because they are cheaper than other bags.

Other environmentalists say plastic bags that end up in the sea pose a danger to animals that swallow them because they mistake the bags for food. There are energy concerns as well. "If one tonne of plastic bags are being reused, that equals 11 barrels of gasoline being saved," the NTV news channel reported. Warnings like that are starting to have an impact. "Society is ready for the change," Ahu Baskut, a spokeswoman for Migros Group, Turkey's leading supermarket chain, said yesterday.

Migros Group alone used to hand out about 800 million plastic bags every year to customers in its more than 1,200 markets in Turkey. But last December, the group introduced biodegradable bags in some shops. The bags dissolve within two years if thrown away after use. At the same time, Migros called on its customers to use fewer bags. It works, Ms Baskut said. "If we look at the first six months, fewer bags have been used."

This month, the government in Ankara also said it was looking at ways to discourage the use of plastic bags. One possible step currently under review is a ban of the black bags that are said to contain carcinogens, Lutfu Akca, a senior official in the environment ministry, told the Sabah daily. He also said the state may raise taxes on plastic products, which could lead to supermarkets charging money for the bags.

Environmental groups and local authorities around the country have also stepped up efforts to wean Turks off plastic bags, with some urging shoppers to return to traditional habits. "Everybody has a responsibility in this field," Ozlem Cercioglu, the mayor of the western Turkish city of Aydin, said as she visited an open-air market in her city together with environmental activists this month. "If we used shopping nets and canvas bags when we go to the supermarket or the market like we used to do many years ago, we would be taking a big step towards a clean world," Ms Cercioglu said, according to local media reports. In Corlu, a town north-west of Istanbul in the country's European section, a local environmental group distributed 20,000 canvas bags to shoppers this month.

tseibert@thenational.ae