The grim price paid for our plastics addiction by seasonal farmworkers and their children in Türkiye

Cultivating Plastic is a series of four new EIA reports on the use and harmful impacts of plastics in agriculture, commonly called ‘agriplastics’. We’re pleased to feature the research of Umut Kuruüzüm PhD, an Assistant Professor of Development at the Department of Economics, İstanbul Technical University, and a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who has been conducting fieldwork in the Çukurova region of Türkiye (previously Turkey). Here we present an extract from his work in Cultivating Plastic concerning the distant impacts of UK agriplastics use that appears in the second report, Environmental and human harm caused by agriplastics.


Childen with waste plastics in Türkiye (c) Umut Kuruüzüm

The Çukurova region, also known as the Cicilian Plain, is located on the watery delta of the Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers in Türkiye.

One of the world’s most fertile plains, Çukurova produces a wide variety of crops, generating an agricultural market worth about $10 billion that ensures the livelihood and the food security of populations in the Middle East, Europe and the Caucasus.

With a massive agricultural economy, the delta has long served as a crossroads for seasonal farmworkers and their children, who travel from Kurdish populated areas in south-east Türkiye to harvest the abundant fresh crops from May to October each year.

In the past decade, refugees and their children fleeing the war and war economy in Syria have become the agriculture sector’s new cheap labour supply, concentrated in tent settlement areas and largely replacing seasonally migrating Kurdish families during the enduring COVID-19 pandemic. These workers and their children live year-round in tents nestled along the network of irrigation canals and motorways with no or limited access to electricity, safe and reliable drinking water and sanitation.

(c) Umut Kuruüzüm

As a result of using contaminated water from irrigation waterways, they suffer chronically from gastrointestinal disorders such as diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting. Despite being officially registered, the children of seasonal agricultural workers and Syrian refugees rarely, if ever, attend school due to lack of funds and chronic indebtedness — or, worse, being required to work alongside their parents.

In recent years, the recycling industry has flourished in the Çukuroava region as a result of the overall multiplication of waste and plastification in our global economy, particularly in the Global North. The region lies near Türkiye’s largest port, Mersin, one of the busiest ports in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a convenient stop for container ships traveling to East Asia via the Suez Canal.

While exporting agricultural commodities, the region has started absorbing a sharp influx of plastic waste from all over Western Europe, in particular from the UK. In 2020, about 40 per cent of the UK’s plastic waste exports went to Türkiye, nearly half of which were either mixed plastic, styrene or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — materials that are neither readily nor extensively recycled. Formal and informal recycling facilities, a chain of dealers and merchants, illegal practices, entrepreneurial activities and improvisation proliferated along with the expansion of informal labour and child labour from agricultural sector into industrial recycling in the region.

Aside from the global inflow of waste into the region, the use of plastic in agriculture in the region has increased in recent years due to rising pesticide, herbicide and oil prices, as well as extreme weather events. Today, a typical watermelon field in the delta requires a minimum of 50kg agricultural plastics per decare, a unit of surface area equal to 1,000m2 (including mulching, drip irrigation pipes, double low-tunnel film covers). This number goes up to 65kg for strawberry fields. For a watermelon, melon or tomato field, a typical farmer disposes of an average of 75 pesticide containers per 100 decares of land every year. An average of 25 plastic fertiliser containers and 150 plastic fertiliser bags per 100 decares of land can be roughly added to the plastic load, making the amount of plastic waste and emissions even worse.

(c) Umut Kuruüzüm

In our earlier research, we also found agriplastics that are out of the recycling loop being collected by refugees and seasonal agricultural workers and their children to use for cooking and heating purposes in and around tents. Burning plastic pesticide and fertiliser containers emits toxic gases and black carbon into the atmosphere while burning mulch plastics in tent settlement areas for cooking and heating purposes releases carcinogens such as dioxin and furan into air, water and soil, posing a risk of respiratory illnesses, heart disease, reduction in cognitive and motor disabilities and, finally, endocrine disruption.

In particular, women and girls who cook in tent settlement areas are disproportionately affected by inhaling plastic fumes and dust, further marginalising them. In addition, the plastic and grass-mixed mulch waste piles can also cause fires in such settlement areas in the region. For instance, at least three fires broke out in the one tent settlement in the summer of 2021, destroying tents and displacing agricultural workers and Syrian refugees in the region, further, physically.

With the increased use of plastic materials in agriculture and the global trade and trafficking of waste, a recent capitalist wastescape on the eastern Mediterranean Sea’s edge is booming globally and locally. It not only pollutes the bionetwork, emits toxic risks, reduces biodiversity and accumulates anthropogenic risks, but it also directly contributes to informal work, child labour, refugee marginalisation and feminisation of toxic poverty.

This emerging wastescape is shaped not only by local political regulations (or non-regulations) and spatial landscapes, but also by international waste politics, diplomacy and our chronic dependency on and consumption of plastics, particularly in the Global North.