A common sight in cities across Turkey comes in the form of the country's roaming waste collectors, who can be seen carting around giant sacks on wheels, collecting recyclable waste as they go.
Although their efforts in keeping communities clean and tidy regularly go unnoticed, their non-stop work throughout the pandemic period, despite difficult conditions is beginning to get noticed.
According to representatives from the waste disposal sector, the virus has demonstrated the importance of recycling due to shortages in supplies that hit as productivity across the country suddenly nose-dived.
Yakup Çelik, 28, a married father of three said he has been working in the sector for 15 years despite the difficulties because there were no other options.
"We didn't work for a short time when the COVID-19 outbreak first appeared in Turkey but then we returned to the streets – we had to do this to make a living," he said.
He and others were warned by authorities to be careful, try not to touch medical materials as much as possible and only collect waste that looked clean.
"Many workers' lives were already at risk, even before the virus," he said, as he urged for a more systematic, disciplined work environment. "Despite the conditions, we have to work," Çelik said of contracting the virus while working.
When waste collection activities were banned by the municipality last month, he and his colleagues came to be seen as "a potential virus carrier" by many, which made their work even harder.
Çelik said he works 15 hours every day regardless of the weather or the "ignorance" he sometimes faces.
"I get up at 8 a.m. and work until 11 p.m.,15 hours a day, mostly seven days a week. We earn an average of TL 80 to TL 90 ($12 -$13) per day. In summer, we work on the streets for hours at times when most people find it hard to even walk due to the heat. There are also winters when we are always on the street trudging through snow, in the cold and rain," he said.
"It would be much better for us if we were given the opportunity to work with insurance. It would be nice if we had regular work shifts, too," he said, adding that the virus has shown the real value of his work, as the municipality's own official waste disposal collectors saw their work times slashed in order to abide by anti-coronavirus safety measures.
Celik hopes the virus disappears as soon as possible so he can go back to work as usual.
Few workers infected
Head of the Street Waste Collectors Association Recep Karaman confirmed measures taken by collectors during the pandemic, such as promoting more flexible working hours, yet stated that despite the "close threat" workers faced daily, only a few had been infected – all recovering quickly.
"We were joking among ourselves that ‘Our immune system is possibly the strongest against the virus since we have been on the streets for years,'" he grinned.
Around 80% of the materials gathered by waste collectors are made up of raw materials, such as paper and plastic, with Karaman stressing that the production chain had been affected because of the disruption in the working order caused by COVID-19.
"For example, paper prices increased by 400%. Paper and plastic companies had difficulty in finding raw materials since it could not be collected from the street," he added.
Karaman said prices have increased and will inevitably be felt by consumers and the economy. But, he added, prices have started to decline since work has begun to return to normal.
Reiterating street waste collectors made an important contribution to the economy, he said to improve productivity, the status of collectors should also be improved: "Our demand is to gain legal status, to have an identity and training."
The waste collectors are hopeful their demands will be realized since the Environment Ministry has shown a positive approach to resolving many of the issues they face.
Karaman said the capacity of the waste collection sector would double if the Turkish public separated their waste, instead of sending it unsorted, directly to landfills.
"We also help nature in this sense. If we do not collect waste, it will pollute our own natural resources," he said, adding that if Turkey was able to collect waste properly, there would be no need to create even a kilo of waste.
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