Environmental protections have failed to keep pace with Istanbul’s rapid growth. But a recent series of initiatives are trying to foment a cultural revolution in the city’s sustainability.

By Yasemin Ulusoy

With a current population of over 15 million people, Istanbul’s rapid growth over the past few decades has not been matched by strong environmental regulations and education around sustainability. Plastic is a particular problem; water bottles, bags, straws, and fishnets contaminates water sources, harm animals, and degrade into micro-plastic ingested by animals and humans. 

Yet a growing movement of initiatives—both governmental, and from civil society and businesses—are now trying to bring about a revolution in Istanbul’s sustainability culture.

Sıfır Atık (Zero Waste) is a government-backed initiative to promote recycling among the general public. Turkey produces an estimated 1.24 million tonnes of plastic per year, 60 percent of which is never recycled. Since Sıfır Atık’s launch last year, municipalities have started placing waste-sorting and recycling points. Some neighborhoods are ahead of others thanks to enthusiastic community leaders and the campaigning efforts of residents. 

The government has also taken many other recent steps to address the city’s sustainability problems. The Container Deposit Legislation charges producers to pay for recycling infrastructure per single-use-packing item (plastic, glass, cardboard, tin). 

A tax on plastic bags which came into effect on January 1, 2019, obliges shops to charge 0.25 TL for each bag. Following the tax, plastic bag use reportedly dropped 70 percent overnight in Turkey, according to a report by Hürriyet newspaper. If the numbers are correct, this is a huge shift in public behavior. 

Istanbul Greater Municipality has positioned ‘smart recycling containers’ that accept plastic bottles and aluminium cans, and in return deposits credit per item on the Istanbulkart (Istanbul travel cards) next to public transport stations and elementary schools. This fun initiative is in fact pretty significant. Even though the credit per bottle rate is fairly low (0.2–0.9 TL), it sends a message that there is value in our waste. 

Lucy Tooze, member of the trash-picking community group Tidy Turkiye, had a sinking feeling about the lack of sustainability initiatives when she first moved to Istanbul, but says it has improved. “It’s been fascinating to see changes in attitude to littering concerns in the three years I’ve been here,” she says. “There is a long way to go, however.” Like others in her community group, Lucy welcomes the political will at the highest levels to instigate change around environmental issues, yet believes that lasting change will come only if citizens are better informed on the need for such regulations. 

Refill Istanbul

Sustainability has also increasingly become a trend in civil society and business circles; creating new initiatives in food and fashion. 

Turkey is a massive market for the sale of bottled water since tap water is generally considered unsafe to drink. According to the Sıfır Atık project, in 2018, approximately 60 percent of all plastic bottles used in Turkey were recycled. But, despite its benefits, recycling is not a panacea to the waste problem. A false gratification can delay taking aim at the source of the problem: single-use plastic consumption itself. 

The project ‘Refill Istanbul’ aims to address this by encouraging people to consume less, and to consume differently. Refill Istanbul’s online map and app locating water refill points, like cafés and restaurants around the city, helps people find out where to refill personal bottles, for free or for a small charge, and avoid buying plastic bottled water. 

Gus Hoyt, Refill Program Manager at the Bristol-based City to Sea community interest company, says that the campaign grew rapidly since its launch in 2015 and there are now over 20,000 Refill Stations on the app from Iceland to Australia. Gus trusts Refill’s potential for reducing plastic waste in Istanbul: “We’ve proven that Refill has the power to create a tipping point and normalize carrying a reusable bottle and reducing plastic pollution at source,” he told The Guide Istanbul. “If all  existing Refill stations are used just once a day, we’re stopping around 5 million plastic bottles at source in a year.”

Sustainable food

The sustainable food start-up scene in Turkey is burgeoning too. Business partners Semi Hakim and Shirley Kaston—who have set up the development company Kök Project to support sustainable food, agriculture, and water projects—both come from a background in gastronomy and champion projects filling gaps in the food economy. 

Kaston points out that the cost barriers to being early developers and adopters of organic and sustainable foods remains high. “There’s been a misconception for years that ‘organic foods’ are expensive or tasteless,” says Kaston. “The first step is ensuring that sustainable products are accessible to everyone and communicating that we can eat and live healthy without forgoing flavor!” 

Hakim adds that the expansion and normalization of food sustainability initiatives in Turkey depends on the energy of entrepreneurs and investors. “Sustainable food alternatives are growing but it’s also the responsibility of restaurateurs to present new flavors in ways that will please the Turkish palette,” he says. The business partners express excitement for Nebiyandogal, a sustainable meat production and sales network based in the Black Sea region that supports small farmers and the breeding of low yield endangered cattle.

Other innovators worth attention include Mumo Wrap, a company designing reusable food packaging materials from cotton and beeswax, and Fazla Gıda, a food waste optimization start-up that collects and channels surplus food from businesses for resale, donation, or recycling. 

Istanbul’s concerted sustainable food trend also includes the emergence of the eatery Ek Biç Ye İç, the healthy food and training restaurant Maide Mutfak, fresh produce distributors like Taze Direkt and Kocamaar Çiftliği, and small operations making dairy products and sourdough bread. Ekolojik Pazarlar holds ecological marketplaces, and Buğday Ekolojik Yaşamı Destekleme Derneği (The Wheat Association for Supporting Ecological Living) works across the city to set up city gardens and compost systems. Those looking to get their hands dirty or escape Istanbul can organize farm-stays through Tatuta. The ecologist Sinek Sekiz translates and publishes classic environmental literature into Turkish, inspiring new generations of permaculture and slow food enthusiasts. 

Mumo Wrap

Talking about a revolution

Meanwhile, fashion is also getting in on the trend. Not only are young clothing brands like Reflect anchoring their businesses in sustainable manufacturing, but more and more people picking up the slack (pun intended) by opting for vintage shopping in Sentetik Sezar, By Retro, Pera Vintage, Eternal Child, and more. Municipality clothing donation boxes can be found in almost every neighborhood for those who want to lighten their load. 

But Until a city-wide comprehensive recycling system is implemented, recycling will often be elective. Being at the forefront of a cultural revolution in sustainability requires dedication to bringing about a better way of living, but also requires faith in other people joining and supporting the movement. 

But sometimes small steps can trigger wider change. We can all start by changing our personal habits, campaigning at the municipal level for sustainable practices and accountability, and pressuring local shops and markets to reduce packaging. 

It’s in our interest, whether we are residents of Istanbul or travelers passing through, to make smart choices, and take responsibility for how we consume and what we do with our waste. 

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