April 15, 2013

NCR-09 [Economy]: What Does “Waste” Worth?

Erdem Üngür and Işık Gülkaynak’s text for 9th issue of the New City Reader.

To whom does an object belong, once it becomes the personal property of a consumer and is then discarded? For what reason has the municipality organized a raid on informal waste collectors? Does garbage belong to the finder, or is everything abandoned on the streets considered state property? Does the former owner of an item also have the privilege of owning itas garbage? Whenathoughtful citizen collects discarded newspapers from her building and takes them to a paper factory,should we consider her a thief?
The tedious and everlasting processes that transform villages into towns, towns into cities, and cities into metropolises, as the population grows and density increases, have for centuries sheltered the newcomer, provided for the increasing needs of original inhabitant, and supported the emergence of increasingly personalized lines of work. The industrial developments and resurgent capitalismof recent years have changed the quality of consumed products and promoted an increase in their quantity. The discovery that the consumed object does not actually complete its life, but can be reused, enabled the emergence of the recycling/recovery market. With the breakdown in ecological equilibrium and the depletion of the world’s natural resource reserves, this market, hence “waste”, is becoming increasingly valuable. Furthermore, this value is of considerable substance, especially considering the irresolvable conflicts experienced by legal and illegal systems that aim to generate revenue from waste.

However, none of this can enter the general public consciousness due to the consumption policies of the capitalist order. The consumer is no longer concerned with the stages of production and recycling implemented on their behalf. The contemporary economic system makes the source and destination of the object unimportant; within this process, individuals are reduced to mere “consumers,” performing the only act remaining in their control at an increasing rate. After the moment of consumption, the object is without origin, trapped in eternity, as if it had disappeared. But, in fact, it changes form, re-enters consumption processes, and radiates value through the path determined by sociopolitical and economic systems. Similar to our alienation of waste, those who collect and separate the waste are also alienated. In terms of the ecological philosophy on which the recycling is based, recognizing the conditions of these people who are forced to be society’s other, making their demands for humane living and working conditions heard, and re-integrating them into the sociopolitical system within equitable circumstances, are inescapable.
The parallels between the “consumption object–waste” and “consumption–collector” dualities are intriguing. Despite the fact that these individuals are identified as street collectors and constitute not only the most important but also the most suffering elements of the unauthorized system, and despite the fact that their place as a community within the urban ecosystem is crucial, they are condemned to a state of invisibility. In fact, as much as the consumer lacks awareness of the collector, the collector does not complain about this state of invisibility either. Interestingly enough, the system sustains itself only in this way.

Waste cycle and Turkey:
The traditional disposal of waste in the sea was replaced in 1953 with uncontrolled disposal;in 1995, controlled disposal.[1] Currently, controlled disposal areas are developed in terms of minimizing their damaging effect on natural environments. In recent years, Turkish policy began to be influenced by the newly recognized value of waste as a commodity through worldwide recycling practices, emerging as a response to ecological damage. Therefore, new technological and economic arrangements have been introduced, oriented towards reducing the quantity of waste disposed in controlled areas and recovering as much waste as possible. Keeping in mind influential EU criteria and potentials for revenue extraction, the government has begun various pilot recycling practices. As a result, first illegal collectors and then the municipality became involved in the waste market. In metropolitan municipalities, the collection and recycling of all sorts of waste is under the authority of the Office of Environment Protection and Waste Management, within the Environment Protection and Control Administration. In local municipalities, this task is carried out by the Office of Environment Protection and Sanitary Works. Rather than by the municipality itself, the collection and recycling processes are carried out by authorized institutions and licensed transportation companies and recycling facilities within the regulatory framework determined by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. [2]
As much as these bureaucratic rearrangements could be seen as progress, they also placed in an “illegal” position the independent individuals who survived on this task under various qualifications (without a legal title) since the 1930s. Rather than replacing systems previously created by these people once and for all, the new systems created by the municipalities were annexed to the market and generated a duality. These systems can be labelled as formal and informal systems; the formal is, by nature, easier to examine and explain, whereas the informal system is more problematic in terms of its social, economic, and political aspects, more resistant totechnical analysis. Between these two, a phenomenon has arisen, with structural complexities comparable to the formal system but not governed by written laws. As a part of the EU project, the aim is to liquidate this dual structure and formalize the whole process.

Formal system:
Briefly, the system works this way: [3] municipality vehicles collect and transfer mixed garbage (wet and dry) from residences and institutionsto waste transfer stations. Transfer stations are the units created to reduce transportation costs and traffic density by preventing the direct transportation of waste to recycling, compost and disposal facilities located in the outskirts of the city. The locations of waste transfer stations are determined by the zoning specified in the Ministry of Environment’s solid waste master plan (KAAP). Zoning is specified with references to geographical location, topography, road conditions, economic transportation distance and population ratio of the region. In addition, the research carried out by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality on the annual amount of quality (packaged/recyclable) waste produced by different regions shows the density of the collection system needed in each region. The analysis of annual filling capacity and garbage collection vehicles, on the other hand, reveals the effectiveness of current plans.
The mixed waste stored in transfer stations is compressed in large bins and transported (on highcargo-capacity, heavy vehicles) to main disposal fields. Here, the waste is separated, and each kind is processed differently. Organic wastes are separated and recycled into a high hydration-capacity material with a rich organic value, called compost, which constitutes the main content of fertilizers. Plastic, meanwhile, is recycled in two different ways. The first produces a fuel from waste (RDF), later sold to cement factories, which operate with very high temperatures. The second produces granules, sold to plastic manufacturers for reuse. The remaining waste that cannot be recycled is transferred to a disposal facility. At this stage, energy is produced from the gas emanating from the waste (methane), the water leaking from the waste is purified and directed into the sewage system, and finally, any remaining waste with zero recycling value is transported to controlled storage fields where its damage to nature is minimized. Medical waste, on the other hand, is collected from the source, transferred directly to medical waste incineration facilities located near disposal facilities, and incinerated. Citizens who would like to found facilities and operate in the field of packaging waste collection, separation and recycling can file an application for the Ministry enclosing all plans, projects, reports, technical data, explanations and other documents, and their process of authorisation is initiated by local municipalities. Packaging waste is collected periodically from residences and institutions in pilot regions. In non-pilot regions, it is collected from various institutions periodically in case of demand and from residences irregularly, again in case of demand. Packaging waste is sold directly to licensed recycling facilities.

Informal system:
The results of the research performed by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s KAAP indicate that “individual collectors and scrap dealers buy used packaging waste from storage facilities and businesses, or they collect it from the streets and waste containers.” This is the most common method in Turkey. It is estimated that the waste recycled by street collectors constitutes 10% of urban solid waste and 25 to 30% of recyclable solid waste. Although this type of recycling is not sanitary and legal, it persists due to the fact that the related groups are very wellorganized. The total capacity of the material recycling facilities operated by municipalities in Turkey is250,000 tons per year;nevertheless, these facilities operate at a volume as low as 30,000 tons per year. The amount recycled by municipalities is significantly low compared to that from street collectors.”
Despite the fact that there are no trade unions for collectors and few platforms on which they can make their voice heard, entities such as Ankara Recycling Association (founded in 2005) and KATIK (Recycling Workers Newspaper) actively workto protect collectors’ rights. However, the conflict with the municipality still continues. As the collectors play hide and seek with the municipality, they also make enormous contributions in the recycling of solid waste under difficult conditions.
As findings from our observations indicate, the system is composed of four or five elements and operates approximately as follows: collectors store separated packaging waste, collected from the streets or institutions with which they have verbal agreements, in indoor depots rented together by several collectors. After two or three days, thissolid waste is transferred to larger depots under the supervision of the first mediator. These are half-closed depots with certain technical equipment such as scales, separation bands, and compressors. Metals are taken to melting shops, while plastic goods are taken to shredders. Plastic, metal and paper waste are bought in kilograms, separated and compressed. Next, they are loaded in trucks and taken to a second or even a third mediator to be sold, again by the kilogram, to recycling firms. As we arrive at the final bidder, the system has now become formal; on paper, the firms appear as the collectors, and the commodity can be sold to factories with an invoice.
Ankara Recycling Association’s report at the Bogota Conference (2008) indicates that there are approximately 200,000 solid waste collectors in Turkey, half of them located in Istanbul.Waste collectors tend to come from immigrant, minority or other marginal groups, from all age ranges, and are predominantly male; they generally start the job as seasonal workers, then continue regularly. They usually live in shantytowns near high-status neighborhoods, where quality waste is discarded.

All of this information comes from the research we carried out in 2009. One must keep in mind that systems never stay constant in Turkey, a country changing at an accelerating speed every day. Apart from this, the research area, Tarlabaşı, is currently being demolished as a part of a top-down urban transformation project, and a large part of the aforementioned economic elements (middle and main depots, houses of collectors) are disappearing from the neigborhood; hence, the system is under transformation.

[1] Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Directorate of Waste Management Annual Report, October 2006
[2] The names of government agencies and the system’s operation mode mentioned herein is obtained according to data of 2009.
[3] Eylem Akçay, 2008

  1. By Laura Thompson

    September 25, 2014 4:56 PM


    This is fascinating. We recently visited Istanbul on behalf of a client to understand more about the waste and recycling infrastructure. Specifically interested in paint containers (plastic and metal). We saw many waste pickers.

    Could you tell me if the situation described above (2009 account) is still relevant today?
    Do you know if paint containers are collected as part of this practice? (I expect they are if they are empty?)

    Kind regards,


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