A man carrying plastic bags with groceries in downtown Athens in a file photograph. Authorities have taken action to curb the habit.
Take a look under under the kitchen sink in a typical Greek home. In all likelihood you will find a pile of plastic bags, collected from each visit to the supermarket or local kiosk. Unfortunately, these bags more often than not end up being used to collect trash, and are rarely used to carry groceries again. Neither shoppers nor store owners think twice about using new plastic bags with each purchase.
The government has recently taken action aimed at changing this practice. In a decision coordinated between the Finance, Economy and Environment ministries, as of January 1, plastic bags will cost 3 cents each, with plans to raise the cost to 7 cents as of 2019. Biodegradable plastic bags will still be free, while kiosks and street market stallholders will be allowed to continue giving out non-biodegradable bags without charge.
It is questionable whether these steps will be enough to curb the use of plastic bags, especially when countries in Europe less wasteful than Greece are forcing shopkeepers to charge 10 cents per bag, or banning them altogether. Kiosks and street markets are the source of a large percentage of plastic bags that end up in the trash, so excluding them from the new laws somewhat defeats the purpose. Even the “biodegradable” bags might actually be doing more harm. In an environment with a lack of oxygen, such as a landfill, the bags release methane instead of carbon dioxide when they decompose, a greenhouse gas which is 21 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than Co2, thus contributing to global warming.
Filippos Kirkitsos, founder and president of the Ecological Recycling Society, is pessimistic about the impact of these new policies. “The 3-cent cost won’t have any significant impact on the use of plastic bags, and there are too many exceptions. I don’t think we will see the 40 percent reduction the policy changes are aiming for,” he said. “We will only start to see some real impact in 2019, but it won’t be enough. [...] The data show that the average citizen uses 400 plastic bags per year, but that number could even be 500. That is just too many.”
Plastic bags are just one part of a much larger societal problem. According to a report by the European Environment Agency, only 16 percent of all household waste in Greece is recycled – the rest ends up in landfills. The country has repeatedly been ordered to pay fines for refusing to comply with European Union waste directives, the most recent of which totaled 10 million euros. Greece – and Athens in particular, where only 13 percent of household waste is recycled – has to take serious steps to improve in these areas.
Kirkitsos believes that it is the government and its various institutions’ responsibility to take more action. “The state needs to get organized and run a serious information campaign,” he said. “Not just an ad. We need to take collective action to communicate to the people why this behavior can’t go on. We have a huge responsibility to educate people, and convince them to change their daily habits. We don’t have a choice.”
A northern example
Our European partners have taken active steps to become more environmentally sustainable – a noteworthy example being France, which banned disposable plastic cups and plates in September. Aiming to stick to the EU-wide sustainable development goals, each country has taken steps to reduce waste in their own way. Some places however are far ahead of the curve, having created systems that Greece – and Europe at large – can learn from.
In 2001, the city of Maastricht implemented a new waste management system, aimed at reducing household refuse. Residents of the Dutch city are only allowed to put their garbage out for collection in special red and white trash bags sold by the municipality, which are picked up from outside their homes once a week. Garbage collectors are strictly instructed to not pick up any trash bags that are not approved by city authorities, and residents who break the rules can end up paying hefty fines. The municipality has also created several recycling points around the city where they can dispose of sorted glass, aluminum, paper and plastic waste.
“The guiding principle behind this system is the ‘differentiation tax’ people have to pay when they don’t sort their waste,” said Jintro Pauly, a local politician working with the Municipality of Maastricht on issues regarding sustainability and the environment. “Because the price of the red and white bags replaces the annual tax residents would normally pay for waste collection, it lets them pay for exactly the amount that they waste. So they are economically incentivized to waste less overall, and sort the waste that can be recycled. Not only that, but people are also more aware of sustainability issues, and feel involved in the process.”
The system, while appearing tedious, has shown clear results. Maastricht residents produce about half the amount of waste the average citizen in the Netherlands does: only 110 kilos of annual waste per person, compared to 200 kilos for other cities like Maastricht with between 100,000 and 300,000 inhabitants. Eurostat found that in 2014, the household waste generated in Greece was over 400 kilos per capita.
Athens however has just over 3 million inhabitants, compared to Maastricht’s 120,000. On the difficulty of implementing the Maastricht recycling system, Pauly said: “I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be used in a larger city, assuming you have the infrastructure. [...] The real issue is that people need to know the rules and they need to be enforced. It’s an issue of mentality, which takes time [to change].”