Demand for single-use plastics has shot up in Turkey as a result of hygiene concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, raising fears among campaigners over the future environmental impact.
According to the Turkish Plastic Industry Foundation (PAGEV), demand for single-use plastics increased by 25 per cent in the last two weeks of March. Much of this has been for gloves and masks, but PAGEV chair Yavuz Eroğlu told Inside Turkey that many people, particularly health workers and those in at-risk groups, have also started to use disposable kitchenware to avoid contamination at home.
Turkish e-commerce platforms indicate the popularity of these products. Single-use gloves, masks, protective clothes and tablecloths are best-sellers on Hepsiburada, Gittigidiyor and n11, the country’s most visited online markets. Plastic knives, forks, spoons, cups and plates are also popular. Demand also comes from bars, cafes and restaurants, which are currently closed to the public, but have switched to take-away and delivery services.
The shift towards single-use plastics is also a result of government policy, which has promoted their use as a protective measure. A new regulation by the ministry of commerce has made plastic packaging mandatory in the sale of fruit, vegetables and bread, to limit human contact.
The ministry of family, labour and social services, meanwhile, has issued guidelines that recommend factory canteens serve meals in disposable plastic containers. Some specialist high schools that focus on workplace have begun asking their students to make plastic cutlery for use in government offices. The deputy education minister, Mahmut Özer, has said this is necessary to reduce transmission of the virus.
Even before the arrival of the coronavirus, Turkey’s annual consumption of plastic was relatively high. According to Our World in Data, it is the world’s ninth-largest consumer of plastic; the Turkish Statistical Institute records that the country used 3.1 million tonnes in 2019. Per capita use has increased by ten per cent in the last three years.
The country is also a major producer and exporter of plastic: More than three million tonnes were produced in 2018, over half of them plastic bottles, according to the Ministry of Environment and Urban Affairs. PAGEV’s own figures state that around 40 per cent of single-use plastics produced in Turkey are sent abroad.
According to PAGEV chair Eroğlu, plastic is currently providing a vital service to public health. “Plastic products produced in full automatic machines are totally hygenic because they haven’t been touched by anyone else,” he said.
Zeki Sarıbekir, chair of the ASD, agrees, saying that packaging is essential for food safety.
However, environmentalists argue that people should prioritise washing and social distancing rather than using more single-use plastics that will increase future environmental damage.
WWF Turkey data has shown that 95 per cent of waste in the Mediterranean Sea is comprised of plastics.
In a recent statement, the organisation said that while they acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances, consumers should ensure they recycled single-use products.
“We should avoid polluting our nature today when we remember the importance of personal hygiene,” they said. “We must be sure that single-use hygiene products are properly disposed of.”
Others argue that this is not a practical solution, as the environment ministry’s figures show that the recycling rate for plastic is just 20 per cent. On April 8, a memo from the ministry ordered discarded masks and gloves to be collected in special rubbish dumps and incinerated or sent to landfill.
“Because natural degradation of plastics takes hundreds of years, most plastic products are not biodegradable regardless of conditions” said Nihan Temiz Ataş, a campaigner with Greenpeace Mediterranean.
She believes that plastics producers are exploiting people’s fears for the benefit of their industry. Scientific opinion is currently split on how long the coronavirus can survive on surfaces including plastic: the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that studies have placed it anywhere between a few hours and a few days, but that the knowledge is “not yet certain”.
“The plastics crisis is one of the biggest environmental problems,” said Ataş. “We should solve it rather than fuelling it.”