Toss it in the Bosphorus: The Culture of Waste in Istanbul
When I moved to Istanbul, from Los Angeles, in 2010, I brought my Californian recycling and “don’t litter” cultural ideologies with me. But upon my arrival, I quickly learned that the fight I participated in for multi-residential recycling in Los Angeles would be minimized to “why is there trash everywhere?” upon my arrival to Istanbul. Walking along the busy and almost car-free thoroughfare of Istiklal Cadessi, I was holding my trash, empty soda can, and anything that I had accumulated until I saw a trash can. But on this street, there aren’t any. In fact, on many streets there are no receptacles. Rather, people simply throw trash on the ground for the municipality to clean up later.
This was hard for me to get used to, but I quickly realised that it was a matter of security. Trash cans are often used as receptacles for bombs, therefore, they have been eliminated on Istiklal Cadessi, a street where serious loss of life could occur due the amount of visitors on a daily basis - approximately 3-million people per day on a weekend. So, the 3-million people, per day, throw their trash on the ground and the business owners on this street gather their large plastic bags full of trash into giant heaps for the municipality to gather at night. It seems like the process is working - for the most part. Rarely do I see a piece of trash left for long, as the municipalities have a large staff of street cleaners who are diligent at their task.
But for the sake of security on Istiklal Cadessi, this philosophy and method of trash management has impacted all of Istanbul. Not only are residents, and oftentimes tourists, forced to throw their trash on the ground on Istiklal, but they are using the same practice in areas that are less of a security risk. Their neighborhoods, their parks, the Bosphorus Strait. In almost every neighborhood there is a pile of trash on a corner, even in places where large receptacles are available. The waste life-cycle goes a bit like this: 1) Put your trash on the corner or in a large receptacle; 2) The dogs and cats arrive to scavenge for food scraps; 3) The human “waste-pickers” gather recyclable materials (shown in the image above); 4) And finally the municipality collects the remains. The unofficial system seems to be working, however, this also means environmental repercussions; groundwater and surface water contamination from rainwater runoff.
Your average (close-up) seaside view of the Bosphorus
Credit: Image by author, Renée van Staveren
The Istiklal Cadessi philosophy of waste disposal is also affecting the Bosphorus Strait. In 1953 dumping garbage into the Bosphorus around Istanbul was banned, however, the ban has not kept the municipalities (as late as the 1980s), residents, businesses, and those enjoying a scenic stroll along the Bosphorus to throw their trash to the ground or air, and eventually, into the Bosphorus. What is left is a Bosphorus that looks clean to the naked eye from a distance (clean enough for young boys to routinely swim in it during the summer), but clearly full of waste. We aren’t just talking about your bubble gum wrapper, but also plastic bags, bottles and cans, clothes, furniture, household waste, and other bulky-goods. STH: Underwater Purification and Awareness Activity, starting in 2005, began waste removal in the Bosphorus. They have provided a variety of underwater videos, are increasing public awareness regarding marine pollution, occasionally monitoring and comparing locations within the Bosphorus, and increasing the environmental consciousness in Istanbul’s youth. This is especially important because so many people rely on the Bosphorus as their food source; fishing and gathering clams for their table at home or for restaurants along the seaside. Want to see the kind of waste I'm talking about? Watch this 10 minute program where divers explore the seabed of the Bosphorus Strait.
If Istanbul is going to continue to rely on the Bosphorus for food and its groundwater for potable water, then waste management and waste culture needs to take a dramatic shift. No longer can (or could Istanbul ever) afford to treat its natural resources with disregard - shifting the blame of waste to those who will clean up after them. Days of street corner dumping and intentional bulky dumping in the Bosphorus must stop if Istanbul’s precious natural resources and fish reserves are to be maintained.
What are your thoughts regarding Istanbul’s culture of waste? What should be done to shift the culture?
Renée van Staveren is the Founder of Global Site Plans. She holds a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning with an emphasis in Environmental Planning and Policy from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She also holds a B.S. in Sustainable Community Development from Prescott College. Prior to establishing Global Site Plans and The Grid, Renée van Staveren was an Assistant Planner ...
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