Turkey's poorest survive on trash

Nearly 100 people in a small town in Turkey's southeast make their living collecting rubbish at the town dump.

Almost 30 years ago, the government decided to establish a landfill site in Kamışlıpınar, a village some 50 kilometers outside Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. Locals were forced to give up animal husbandry due to the adverse effects of the dump and began collecting waste there instead.

Clouds of dust, heavy smoke and hundreds of seagulls hang in the air over the site that emits a stench that burns the back of your throat. Villagers are barely visible through the smog. They say they make just under $9 a day collecting plastic that they sell to a company in Diyarbakır that pays one lira ($0.18) per kilo of the waste. The villagers also separate metal and paper to sell to recycling companies.

“There is only one factory here that buys plastic bottles, and they give us their own price, but this is not the case in other cities. Here, plastic waste is bought for a lira, but we know that it’s 1.5 lira per kilo in Istanbul,” said one of the villagers, Mehmet Şirin Kahraman.

Profits have gone down and all said they now earn less money for more work than in previous years. Kahraman said he often spent 10 hours a day searching for waste at the landfill site. Refugees from Syria living in the city, he said, had already gone through the rubbish before it gets to Kamışlıpınar.

"Our work throughout the day only covers our expenses. We don't earn much from the garbage. In fact, the refugees who are fighting for a different life in the cities get this garbage before it comes to us. So, we don't have much of a profit,” he said.

Sixty-year-old father-of-four Süleyman Demir arrives at the dump at dawn.

“I come to the landfill at five in the morning. I go back in the afternoon, but if the weather is bad, there are times when I go home earlier. I’ve been working at this landfill for years. I generally collect metal and plastic, and once a week, customers come and take it away. My four children are going to school right now, and living is very difficult,” he said.

Combing through the garbage is a last resort for those unable to get work elsewhere. Kahraman said he had tried finding another job, but to no avail.

“There is no kind of investment in the east. Importantly, there are no jobs for our youth. There is intense racism against Kurds in the west, and we cannot go there. For instance, many people from our village go to collect hazelnuts during the hazelnut season, but generally people throw rocks at vehicles and buses, and they get attacked. That’s why we cannot go,” he said.

Burhan Demir, a 25-year-old garbage collector from the village nodded in agreement.

“We are trying to get work, but it’s other people who are earning a living. We aren't rewarded for our efforts, because there are only a few people who make money from our labour. We work all day at the dump. The things we collect are being bought cheaply," he said.

"There are 33 households in the village. We have about 100 inhabitants,” Demir said. “Everyone living in the village gets by completely from collecting garbage. We are poverty-stricken people. We are poor - that's why we're at the landfill.”