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Wasted Land

Hazardous chemicals in UK plastic dumps in Turkey underscore the toxic legacy of our exported waste
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
A Greenpeace campaigner sits behind a banner saying 'Wasted Land' and investigates a waste pile in Adana/Seyhan, Turkey.

Main image: © Caner Ozkan / Greenpeace

A report released by Greenpeace Mediterranean today (09 Feb) reveals that five sites in southern Turkey are extensively contaminated with hazardous chemical pollutants following the illegal dumping and open burning of imported plastic waste.

Last year Greenpeace investigators found UK grocery packaging dumped in the same five areas.

A cocktail of toxic chemicals

Scientists found that levels of toxic chemicals in the soil and ash at some of these locations are thousands of times higher than control sites, exposing the toxic legacy of our plastic waste exports.

Samples of soil, ash, water and sediment collected from the five plastic waste dumpsites were examined by scientists from both Greenpeace Research Laboratories and an independent laboratory.

They tested to identify as many chemical pollutants as possible, and also measured the concentrations of more than 60 chemical pollutants generally associated with plastic packaging or the burning of plastics.

The presence of a wide range of toxic chemicals was identified in ash and soil samples from all five locations, and detailed in the ‘Game of Waste’ report.

‘Many of the chemical pollutants found in the samples of ash and underlying soil are highly resistant to breaking down in the environment and can build up in animals and humans over time. Levels of these pollutants were very high at some of these sites where plastic imported from countries including the UK gets dumped.’

One of the scientists who carried out the analysis

Pollutants detected

Dioxins and furans

The scientists found that the level of dioxins and furans detected at one site was the highest ever reported in the soil in Turkey – 400,000 times that of the control site. In another location, though not directly comparable, the level of dioxins and furans in ash was more than 6,000 times that of soil at the control site.

Dioxins and furans can be toxic to foetuses, cause premature birth, trigger tumours, cause skin lesions and affect hormones and immune systems.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

At one location the total concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in soil was found to be 30,000 times higher than the control sample. Exposure to PCBs can harm embryos and foetuses and disrupt hormones, and PCBs can be transferred from mothers to babies through breastfeeding.

Metals and metalloids

Certain metals and metalloids were found at elevated concentrations across all sites. They include cadmium and lead, which persist in the environment and can accumulate in the body. Lead can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system and cadmium is classified as carcinogenic for humans.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

In four locations chlorinated benzene compounds were found, some of which can affect the blood and cause skin lesions and liver disease. In some places the concentration of benzo(a)pyrene, a known human carcinogen, in ash samples was above the limit allowed for residential soils in Turkey.

‘This is the toxic fingerprint of Britain’s dangerous pattern of dumping plastic waste out of sight and out of mind. This proof of the harm our plastic can cause, when dumped and burned overseas, should spur the government on to do the right thing and ban plastic waste exports.’

Political campaigner at Greenpeace UK

Irreversible damage

Similar contamination was commonly found both in ash from the sites and in the soil under the ash, indicating that these highly toxic chemical pollutants were transferred from ash to the soil.

Some of the organic pollutants that the scientists found in high levels can remain in soil for a very long time.

These chemicals can potentially contaminate nearby surface water and leak into underground water sources.

This pollution can harm wildlife, microorganisms, plant life and people. The chemicals can biologically accumulate once they enter the food chain.

‘Turkey’s soil, air, and water are bearing witness to the environmental and human health costs of Europe’s plastic waste exports. Countries like the UK and Germany, who ship their plastic rubbish overseas where it’s dumped and burned, are leaving a toxic trace in Turkey’s fertile soil. This damage is irreversible. Exporting countries must take responsibility and stop sending plastic to Turkey. Turkey is not your plastic dump and these harmful waste games must end.’

Biodiversity project lead at Greenpeace Mediterranean

Exported plastic

From January to November 2021 the UK exported 117,678 tonnes of waste plastic to Turkey.

The volume of mixed plastic waste exported from the UK to Turkey fell following the May 2021 Greenpeace investigation into UK plastic being dumped and burned, and the government of Turkey restricting imports of waste with more than 1% contamination.

However there has been a month-on-month rise since July 2021. The November 2021 export total (4,126 tonnes) was almost ten times the July total (484 tonnes).

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