Plastic recycling in Istanbul

22 Sep 2021

Having watched so many videos of plastic recycling machinery in operation, I was thrilled to get a chance to visit a small plastic recycling company on the outskirts of Istanbul. I met Eldar (not his real name) and his sister, who volunteered to be my translator for the day, in central Istanbul. It took us more than an hour to navigate Istanbul’s morning traffic; once we got close to the recycling factory, we stopped for a traditional Turkish breakfast. Eldar told me that he studied environmental engineering, then he did all sorts of jobs for about a decade before joining this small plastic recycling company that does mechanical recycling of polyethylene (PE). To keep myself awake, I got frequent tea refills while indulging in a cheese börek. As in any place in Istanbul that serves food, there was a local cat looking for anyone willing to share their breakfast sausage. As a vegetarian, I got little attention from the cat.

We jumped back into the car and soon entered an industrial zone. All the buildings were two storeys high, with high ceilings, painted pale yellow on the outside. We parked next to a shiny new van with the company logo. “We just got this new van”, Eldar sounded very proud, “before we only had that old one, we couldn’t do many pickups or deliveries with just one vehicle.” As I stepped into the building, I was immediately surrounded by piles of bags of plastic scraps almost reaching the ceiling.

As we negotiated our way deeper into the building, Eldar explained that he only buys clean industrial plastic waste from companies, he doesn’t work with post-consumer waste. He pointed out shopping bags with misprinted logos, defective shopping bags with one handle much thinner than the other, offcuts. “All of our feedstock is clean, so we don’t need to wash it, and we have no wastewater to take care of”, Eldar explained. “We shred low density polyethylene (LDPE) before putting it through the extruder, high density material (HDPE) we put directly into the extruder.” Eldar picked up a piece of bright yellow plastic and crinkled it next to my ear, “Can you hear how HDPE makes this distinctive noise that you don’t get from LDPE?”. I asked about the labels on the wall specifying different types of feedstock. “Yeah, we did have the plan to keep everything neatly in separate piles, but things got out of control a bit,” said Eldar. Plastics of different types and colours were all over the place, with no way to find anything unless somebody remembers what they put where.

We reached the shredder operated by a couple of young guys. They were feeding it with clear LDPE film. “This is dry shredding”, Eldar explained. Just as I wanted to step a bit closer, one of the guys scooped up water from a bucket with what looked like an old 1.5 litre ice cream box and emptied it into the shredder. This resulted in an immediate cloud of vapour, and an intense smell of melting plastic flooded the room. “Adding a bit of water prevents plastic from overheating”, Eldar clarified. I stared at the extractor above the shredder sucking in water vapour and making a couple of plastic flakes dance upwards through the air. Below the shredder was a cubic meter sized bag that was filling up with white flakes. The flakes were warm and felt like candle paraffin to the touch.

“Our extruder is just there”, Eldar gestured towards the back of the room, but immediately shook his head as he evaluated the piles of plastic we would have to negotiate to get there. “Let’s enter through the other door”, he suggested. The other entrance was similarly crowded with piles of bags of plastic scraps almost reaching the ceiling, as well as neat piles of bags full of recycled pellets. As I looked at the extruder, Eldar pointed out the degassing unit and the melt filtration unit. “We run the shredder all morning, then when we have enough flakes we run the extruder for the rest of the day”, Eldar explained. “Our electricity connection does not allow us to run both at the same time, everything goes bang if we try it.” I picked up a couple of bright yellow HDPE pellets from the bottom of the container. “We are actually doing a clear pellet week, but we had an emergency yesterday - had to make an order of yellow ones at a very short notice. Now we’ll have to disassemble and clean the whole extruder before restarting with the clear ones; otherwise they’ll all be a bit yellow instead of clear.” Eldar showed me the video of his extruder making these bright yellow pellets. I guess he made the video yesterday, when he realised he won’t be able to show me his extruder in operation.

Eldar walked over to a huge bag in the corner and picked up a couple of beige pellets. “These ones we really screwed up, we’ll have to redo the whole batch”, he said handing me the pellets. They had a rough surface, and many of them were melted into pancake chape. I’ve asked about the machines and the maintenance. Eldar explained that both machines have been made locally in Turkey, so that spare parts are available if needed. One of their neighbours here is a metal workshop, so they can get metal spare parts made for them immediately. “Sometimes the machines work for three months without fault, sometimes they break down every day. It’s just luck, really.”

To me the whole place looked like a big fire hazard; I looked for the sprinklers, but couldn’t find any. A couple of dusty fire extinguishers were visible, but they were tiny. I asked about it, and Eldar told me that he doesn’t allow use of any appliances here, not even phone charging. He showed me an electric cupboard that had loads of wires and was supposed to monitor the electricity supply to prevent any disaster. I wish my dad would be there to explain to me how exactly that works.

As we walked towards Eldar’s office we passed his third and final machine - the one for making heavy duty plastic trash bags. Eldar explained that most of his revenue comes from recycling as a service - he buys plastic scraps, recycles them into pellets and sells them back to the same company for them to use it again. If he can’t sell the pellets, he makes these heavy duty bags which he sells through the website along with the pellets. “You can use them to transport up to 60kgs,” Eldar sounded very proudly while tearing one of the bags apart, “it’s pure plastic with no additives, just a bit of grey colorant. And they are recyclable.”He showed me a different bag, made by his competitors; holding it against the light he pointed out the imperfections in colour and density of the bag.“This one is mostly filler, barely any recycled plastic in it”, he said while tearing it apart.“Calcite is ten times cheaper than plastic scraps, so these bags are cheap, but neither durable nor recyclable.”After comparing the tear marks on the two bags, I am now pretty sure I can estimate the filler content of the bag just by tearing it. “If something like this goes through our extruder by accident, I’ll never get the calcite out of it, the quality of my products will be lower forever.”

Eldar invited me into his office and made us tea. On the big TV screen there were feeds from 19 cameras scattered around the building. As we sat down to have tea, Eldar enlarged the feed from the camera pointed at the shredder being operated by the young guys. “If I can’t keep an eye on them in person, I like to at least watch them on camera. Sometimes they don’t work fast enough.” I asked him about paying his workers for every kilogram of plastic shredded or pellets made instead of per workday. “That wouldn’t be a good deal for me, would it?” I’m guessing the strategy is to first agree on the daily salary and then make them work as hard as possible.

Eldar told me that most recyclers work with post-consumer dirty feedstock, for that reason his high-quality pellets made from clean plastic scraps are in high demand. I asked about his plans to grow the business. “Sourcing the feedstock is a problem. Many companies nearby are locked into contracts with big companies like Coca-Cola, they won’t sell me their scraps even if I pay a higher price than what the big companies do. So I have to drive to other cities to buy feedstock there. I could move my business to a different city, but it takes at least two years to get a licence to operate and it costs a lot. For this place it took us two and a half years to get a licence”, Eldar gestured towards a piece of paper hanging on the wall, not even framed. “Before there was an option to buy from the UK, but after many bad things happening, the government has tightened the regulations. So that would be difficult now. Besides, I need to be very careful - if even a small fraction of feedstock contains some bad additives, I won’t get my machines clean ever again.” It really bothered me that having invested in three machines, they could only operate one at a time, so I asked about that. “We are planning to upgrade our electricity supply, but that will cost at least ten of my monthly salaries. We can’t afford it now while we are still paying installments on our new van. We could just put one of our machines into the next building behind this wall”, Eldar gestured, “but our licence covers only this building, so that would take two years to get the second licence. And that would be expensive. The government is planning new industrial zones where companies and recyclers would be located together, one day we hope to be operating there. We won’t need to drive anywhere then.”

Eldar poured some pellets into my hand, “These are virgin LDPE. And these…”, I extended my other hand, “are recycled LDPE. You can really tell the difference if you bite into them.” And there I was, sitting in an office, drinking tea, and chewing on some LDPE pellets. Eldar’s sister was laughing at me and showed no desire to try the pellets herself. Eventually I had to admit it, “I can’t tell the difference.”

Eldar stared at the TV still showing the young guys operating the shredder. “Finding workers is the biggest problem. Turkish guys expect to be managers, they don’t want to operate a shredder. I used to have 12 guys from Afghanistan here, now I only have five left, the rest run away to Europe. Even though I treat them well. I let them stay right here, upstairs. That way they don’t waste time commuting. I don’t charge them any rent either. Often foreign workers struggle to find foods they crave. I find everything for them, I buy them meat, vegetables, oil - everything they need to cook. Sometimes there is a lot of work and they have no time to cook, then I get them takeaway. I always ask what they want, and whatever they say, I get them that. Sometimes they want new t-shirts, then I buy them t-shirts. They need TV to watch and the internet to call their families on WhatsApp, so I buy them that. They send all of their salaries to families back home, so I buy them everything. Not everyone treats their workers like family, you know? And still they run away to Europe.” Eldar offered me more tea and proudly said “we have coffee here too if you want”. I couldn’t possibly fit more tea or coffee inside me. “Finding a driver is also a problem. I can hire a Turkish driver, but they only drive, they won’t do any loading or unloading. Sometimes I send my guys in the van, they load and unload, but then there is nobody working here - not good for the business. Sometimes I just drive myself and do the loading myself, but then there is nobody to supervise what’s happening here. But we will grow. Next time you visit, we will be a bigger business. We have plans, it’s going to happen.”

As we stepped outside, I noticed that the tree in front of me had more plastic bags in it than leaves. “That does happen when we do loading outside; we will clean up today,” said Eldar as he was lighting a cigarette. We shook hands and I braced myself for a three hour bus ride back to central Istanbul.

That evening I went for a stroll in Tarlabaşı slum just a couple of minutes walk away from a touristy Galata neighbourhood. There I found the depo of the waste pickers collecting plastic and cardboard from the wealthy parts of the city. It didn’t look like any recycling was happening there, but it must have been somewhere nearby.