A worker weighs recyclable waste brought by a Muratpasa resident.

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Several cities are combating low public interest in recycling with a cash for trash scheme.

Muratpasa, a district of Antalya on Turkey’s southern coast, aims to attract consumers to better environmental practices by fattening their wallet. If they recycle their waste, they receive points that earn them money.

Muratpasa’s Green Neighbor Card got its start in 2014 as a campaign pledge by then-candidate, now mayor, Umit Uysal. Uysal, a lawyer by training, wrote the initial project, and in 2016 it was ready to launch, says environmental engineer Ercan Turan, the program’s coordinator.

Muratpasa contracted out the recycling program to a local company. Residents deliver their recyclable waste to company trucks in their neighborhoods or to collection sites. In return, points are loaded onto Green Neighbor Cards provided by the vendor. Card balances can be used in shops to pay for goods; get discounts at businesses ranging from Burger King to IKEA; or withdrawn as cash from ATMs.

The district’s program grew steadily. In April 2016, the first month, residents turned in 8,753 kilograms of waste. By December of that year it reached 78,000 kilograms, according to the 2016 district annual report. By 2020, average monthly collection had risen to 200,000 kilograms, for an annual total of 2,400 tons of recyclable waste.

Recycling has taken off in Turkey in the past decade, but the numbers remain low – at least in part because it started practically from zero. In 2019 the country had a 12% rate of municipal waste recycling and composting, still one of the lowest among European nations, according to the European Environment Agency.

A law passed in 2004 and revised in 2011 kickstarted the country’s focus on the recycling issue. It requires recycling facilities to accept more kinds of packaging and mandates reductions in the amount of packaging. The number of waste processing and recycling facilities rose from 28 in 2003 to 521 collection and separation plants and 676 recycling facilities in 2015 (the most recent published data).

A recycling container on a Muratpasa street.

The pandemic has slowed recycling campaigns, but the idea of money for recyclables is catching on. Muratpasa’s initiative has spurred other local governments in Turkey to try similar projects. In Istanbul’s Sisli district, for example, people not only shop with their card but can access social support payments.

And the need is evident: As much as 90 percent of municipal waste in Turkey goes to landfills, according to data from the OECD. The biggest hurdle to more effective waste collection and recycling is lack of sufficient infrastructure, according to the European Environmental Agency.  

Others Get on Board

Sisli launched its effort in 2020. The local government contracted out the work to a recycling company, in which it holds 51 percent of the shares. Sisli since has expanded its project to include hospitals and businesses, says district communications adviser Gonen Orhan. 

In the western city of Tekirdag, the Suleymanpasa district worked with Muratpasa in implementing its recycling card system in 2019. About 200,000 residents participate, says Eda Erdur, an environmental engineer and part of the district administration. As in Muratpasa, local authorities contract out the work to the private sector.

Because Sisli and Suleymanpasa both had to suspend their recycling projects during the COVID-19 pandemic, they lack data about their level of success.

Muratpasa residents can deliver their recyclables to any of 14 staffed locations around the city every Sunday, or they can wait for collection trucks to come to them. From Monday to Saturday, trucks operated by Cevmak, a private waste-separation company, visit neighborhoods on a prearranged schedule. They broadcast announcements to encourage residents to bring out their trash. When they do, workers weigh it with a hand scale and enter the amounts into a mobile application, then add the corresponding number of points to the residents’ cards.

The amount added to the card depends on the kind of waste. Glass, paper, and metal, for example, yield fractions of a U.S. cent per kilogram; 4 to 5 kilos of paper pays for a loaf of bread. The rates are slightly higher if the waste is delivered to a staffed pickup point. 

Bales of paper at the Cevmak facility, ready to be shipped to a recycling company.

In the program’s first five years, the district distributed more than 94,000 cards, according to the 2020 annual report, although less than half were activated. At that time, the cards could be used to make purchases only in participating shops. The system was expanded in 2021, and the card now is accepted at any shop with an electronic payment terminal. In the first four months of 2021, almost 12,000 new cards were handed out to Muratpasa residents, and 8,472 were activated.

According to the district, as of last April, residents had earned 5.3 million liras since the program began (worth almost $400,000 at the current exchange rate, although some $1.5 million in 2016).

Along with plastic, metal, paper, and glass, workers collect clothes, shoes, vegetable oil, and electronic equipment. The waste is separated at Cevmak’s collection and separation facility, processed, and sold to Turkish recycling companies. 

A big plus for Muratpasa, Turan says, is that Cevmak covers all costs of the recycling card project, including the financial incentives.  

Making a Difference, Not Just Money 

Marine biologist Sedat Gundogdu of Cukurova University, who studies the effects of microplastics on sea life, sees the Green Neighbor Card as a mixed bag. On one hand, the program raises public awareness, he says. “The fact that other municipalities have replicated it shows that it was successful. Another plus is the gradual increase in the amount of waste that was collected over the years.” 

But the project’s financial compensation aspect may have unforeseen consequences, Gundogdu says. “I believe they should have taken the route of presenting recycling as a civic duty. … I think it’s possible to accomplish waste separation at the source by cities raising awareness through public activities and a penalty system instead of leaving it up to voluntary participation.”  

Havva Karakus, a resident of Muratpasa’s Meltem neighborhood, says once-a-week collection is not optimal. Many people would rather not save their waste for a whole week and don’t have space in their homes to store it, Karakus says.

Local resident Havva Karakus says recyclables should be collected more often than once per week.

Women, especially homemakers, make up the largest single group of card users, according to a study by Akdeniz University sociologist Hasan Huseyin Aygul and Derya Yildiz, a graduate student in the Akdeniz University Mediterranean Civilizations Research Institute. Women made up 69 percent of the 400 Muratpasa card users they surveyed, 43 percent of them homemakers.

“Working residents aren’t at home at collection times during the day, and they are hesitant to go to collection points during the week, maybe because they live far away from one,” says Yildiz. She echoes Karakus’ view that people complain about not having enough space. “These are some of the reasons that make me doubt the project’s sustainability.”  

Responding to this criticism, Turan says the district recently raised the amounts for recyclables delivered to the staffed collection points on Sundays, to encourage working residents to participate. 

The cash-for-waste idea has both positive and negative outcomes, Yildiz said. It provides extra income for lower-income residents, and she has even seen residents of her own neighborhood hire themselves out to collect their neighbors’ waste. But the financial reward system diverts participants’ attention from increasing awareness about recycling and turns the project into a form of making money, Yildiz said. 

On the positive side, she says, the project has helped raise awareness about waste management, especially among stay-at-home wives and mothers with no prior experience of recycling. 

To give recycling an added boost, more containers should be placed in already-aware, higher-income neighborhoods which don’t currently have recycling infrastructure, Yildiz suggests.

But recycling might be more common than statistics indicate, because of the small army of informal waste pickers who sort through trash containers for material they can sell to private recyclers. This provides a meager living for tens of thousands of people, many from marginalized communities, while making it difficult to calculate exactly how much waste is recycled.

Integrating these unlicensed collectors into the official system could bring improvements, says Sisli district communications adviser Orhan. District officials discussed potential collaboration in a recent meeting.

Antalya-based freelance journalist Sevilay Nur Saraclar has written about topics such as women’s issues and the environment for outlets including Brandday, Journo, and Inside Turkey. https://twitter.com/Sevilaysaraclar.

Photos by the author.