Ukrainian cyclist Vyacheslav Stoyanov found plenty of garbage marring the Black Sea coastline. Photos via Vyacheslav Stoyanov.
They say when you're really in love, you become a bit blind to the object of your affection's flaws. If that's true, my love affair with Istanbul must still be going strong, because I often barely even seen the trash strewn everywhere anymore. It took a visit from some San Francisco friends to make me realize how firmly my blinders had become fastened. I would take them to a spot I found lovely and "natural," and they would say, "It would be great if there wasn't so much garbage." But the observations of a cyclist who recently pedaled around the Black Sea suggest I might not be the only one who's become inured to the sight.Turkey's coasts among the dirtiest
Vyacheslav Stoyanov, a 35-year-old Ukrainian of Bulgarian descent, spent 45 days circling the banks of the Black Sea to raise awareness about pollution, both in the water and on the coastline. The 6,000-kilometer trek took him through Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey -- and he concluded that Turkey was among the dirtiest countries on the expedition.
The cyclist, whose "Life Without Rubbish" tour will next take him to Greece and Macedonia to survey the Ionian, Cretan, Aegean and White Sea coasts, told the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman that plentiful, conveniently placed garbage cans and positive reinforcement -- such as billboards that say "Thank you for keeping roads clean" -- seemed to play a big role in distinguishing clean areas from dirty ones. He also attributed the squalid conditions of the coastline in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, to socioeconomic factors, saying, "Life there is so difficult, and the people are poor."
Does poverty lead to pollution?
Sounds logical, right? After all, many of us in the West tend to think of poverty and filth as synonymous, whether we believe that poor people lack the will, or just the means, to live in a cleaner environment. I realized I share some of that same prejudice on a recent trip to Turkey's southeast, its poorest region. In DiyarbakÄ±r, the area's largest city, unemployment is estimated at 40 percent -- almost triple the national average.
But as my friend and I wandered the city's back streets, tailed by children asking us for money, we noticed that empty lots were just that -- empty. Not piled up with trash or broken-down appliances, they were just bare patches of land. And though the streets themselves were far too small to bring a garbage truck through, they too were clear of refuse.
The relics of consumer culture
Discussing the topic recently with a fellow environmentalist here in Istanbul, we pondered whether a lack of garbage was a sign that consumerist culture had not completely infiltrated yet. When she was a small girl growing up in Ankara, the woman said, there was no garbage pick-up in her neighborhood, though her mother would pile up newspapers for a man -- what we might today call a scavenger -- who would give the family a few wooden clothespins for the stack. But there was less to throw away back then, certainly none of the water bottles that Stoyanov saw clogging shorelines, and few packaged goods in general. In a city like DiyarbakÄ±r, that may still be the case, the residents' lack of means inadvertently saving them from the plight of Aegean towns like Ã‡akmaklÄ±, where tourism and industry bring in dollars, but also detritus.
Residents there say ships visiting harbors near Ã‡akmaklÄ± drop their waste in the region's bays, turning them into a "plastic bag dumping area" where the water has become too dirty to swim in. "The area's nature is already polluted by the factories around," local official Ahmet Kahraman told the HÃ¼rriyet Daily News and Economic Review. "Now our village, one of the few places that managed to stay clean, is at risk because of the ships.... Most of the plastic bags are their waste, and the bilge sometimes creates a greasy layer on the surface of the sea."
Akyaka Beach stands out
But the news isn't entirely bad along Turkey's coasts. Akyaka Beach in MuÄŸla province, further down the Aegean shore, is a public beach rated in the Blue Flag system for good water quality and environmental management; recently, it was "hailed as an 'example-setting beach'" at a meeting of the organization that administers the international eco-label, the Daily News reports in a separate article. To achieve this success, the municipality set up a treatment facility to deal with septic waste from touring yachts and conducted a public-education campaign to promote cleaning up the area's beaches and waters.
"Vehicles used to go over the sand [and] shop owners used to empty their buckets full of dirty water on the beach. We have stopped both," Akyaka Mayor Ahmet Ã‡alca told the Daily News. "We also placed many ash trays on the beach so that the smokers do not bury cigarette ends in the sand."
If Akyaka's example indeed spreads, perhaps more people here will be reminded, like I was, that trash is not an inevitable fact of life. And perhaps the next person who attempts a bike ride around Turkey's coastline will have more to praise than to lament.
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