Mounds of garbage need to be cut down

An integrated waste management program constitutes a practical demonstration of the level of political culture of each democratic polity, as a solution to a problem that raises social tensions and demands long-term, innovative and expensive planning. Up to now, the handling of the waste management issue in Greece, and Attica in particular, by successive PASOK governments has been a blatant example of weakness and inability to solve an issue of major national importance, which has led to frequent legal judgments against Greece by European bodies for contravening community legislation. For many years, and for several reasons, the State contented itself with the supposedly hygienic landfill at the Ano Liosia site in western Athens. After other landfills were closed, it became the only garbage dump for Athens. Political dilemmas So what next? Or is there no way out? If, like the government, we opt for easy answers, then indeed we have found ourselves in a blind alley. If half-measures, and compromises with interested parties, constitute the guide to policy, this is the royal road to disaster. Arbitrarily designating landfill sites around Attica undermines any practical solution. But if we can reach a social consensus based on an understanding between political parties, local authority bodies and scientists, then a solution is possible. We can look to the future with optimism. As is well known, democracy opens possibilities and provides solutions given enough will on the part of leaders and due respect for institutions. Most of the responsibility, it follows, lies with the government, which has opted for makeshift solutions, sweeping, so to speak, the trash under the carpet as it has done for many years now. It yielded to the logic of passing the buck, as well as to all manner of vested interests. The current haste on the part of the Ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) to pass the bill, willy-nilly designating new landfill sites in the Attica region shows the government’s inability, once again, to solve the massive problem of waste disposal. Under the pressure of the upcoming Olympic Games, warnings and fines from the European Union, the competent authorities are hastening to implement solutions that have no practical value. In a recent meeting between all of the Attica Region’s MPs and the YPEHODE minister, we confirmed [the solution] was a rush job, without the preparation and study necessary for a comprehensive settlement. It came to the point when only the findings of the studies, and not the actual data, were shown to the MPs. The government today is being forced to acknowledge the real size of the problem, following recent events that almost proved fatal to numerous workers. A fire that persisted for days, followed by heavy rain, caused the garbage mountain [at Ano Liosia] to collapse – and the wall of silence to cave in with it. The responsibilities of YPEHODE and the Ministry of the Interior, Public Administration and Decentralization (ESDDA) were laid bare for all to see, as were those of ESDKNA (Union of Municipal Authorities in Attica). ESDKNA’s role The last-named is part of the local administration union for Attica (TEDKNA), which is composed of 87 local administrative bodies. The PASOK-leaning board prevented any other local administrative unit from becoming a member, thus maintaining the political orientation of the union until last October’s municipal elections. That the union’s budget last year alone came to 264 million euros (90 billion drachmas) explains its closed-shop nature and the purpose of the glossy leaflets, full-page newspaper articles and the hail of radio and television messages devoted to the «works and days» of ESDKNA. Of its revenues, very little comes to municipal bodies, with the exception of the municipality of Ano Liosia, which has the lion’s share of funding; 79 percent from the 27 percent it was in the 1990s. But these funds were not used to develop new methods of waste management, nor to upgrade the area. Indicatively, the recycling factory constructed at the landfill (part of which was struck by the landslide), has only ever had an hour’s operation. No one has offered an explanation. Waste management A management system is socially acceptable and feasible if is marked by a balance between economic, social and environmental consequences, and especially if society is persuaded that protection of the environment requires funding. Modern science provides solutions for waste management that certainly do not focus solely on landfills, both the cheapest and easiest solution, which is why the government is heading down that road. But even for landfills, there are international criteria (having to do with the environment, geology and habitation) which must be respected, yet appear to have been disregarded by the government up to now. Its only concern is to save face through a spurious decisiveness. This leads nowhere as it does not take into consideration the basic prerequisites for the choice of a landfill site, such as the existence of a suitable road network, protection of the environment, the water table, surface water, archaeological sites and protection zones of sites of natural beauty (incorporated into the Natura 2000 program). Tourist and settlement growth, infrastructure such as airports and harbors and seismic activity bar the siting of landfills in the vicinity. Is it, anyway, a sign of modernization to insist on obsolete solutions that… disregard modern science? The daily protests by citizens supply the answer. They are wholly justified, since no one wants to transform their home into a dump for all kinds of garbage. A central goal of any scheme should include reducing the mountains of waste before the final stage when it is dumped or otherwise treated (through e.g. composting, or being burned in special incinerators). For this reason, we need to set up central sorting stations aimed at recovering energy and material. A long-term aim, however, is for as much sorting to take place at source as possible. Indisputably, we need widespread recycling, which, despite EU directives, has long been delayed. At the same time, control over sources of waste should be promoted, with the aim of reducing the volume produced as well as environmentally friendly packaging materials. Given that Attica is short of space, and that its importance goes beyond the region due to the concentration of economic activities, the possibility of treating its waste outside narrowly defined borders must be examined. (…) Under no circumstances should the model transferred be that of Ano Liosia, which would trigger the justifiable reactions of local communities. Other solutions If waste management sites outside Attica are excluded, then numerous small centers that would treat the garbage of the surrounding municipalities should be set up. Recyclable material will be sent to the corresponding factories, organic matter will either be dealt with in situ with modern heat-processing methods (incineration, pyrolysis or aerification), or will be made into compost and recycled for agricultural use. Moreover, organic matter can be compressed into bales and then transported to proper landfills. Development associations, such as that of the Lavrion area (which wants to manage the waste of local municipalities) should be in charge of waste management, with respect for the principle that no area should have to shoulder the burden of another area’s garbage. The problem of building-site rubble that today is the scourge of Attica must also be solved alongside that of waste. Currently, the rubble ends up at Ano Liosia, thus further hampering its operation, or illegally on roads and plots of land. For properly constituted solutions, there needs to be political will on the part of the government. An overall, soundly based proposal should be presented, as opposed to spasmodic decisions which throw local communities into turmoil and basically go nowhere. What the government should finally realize is that no scheme can materialize without its acceptance by local inhabitants, even if it is passed into law. Police measures are unlikely to help. Moreover, the government must acknowledge that the ESDKNA administrative model is a total failure, since it brought corruption and failed to find a way out or provide a future vision. Local administration must gain a substantial role… and shoulder the responsibility for waste management. YPEHODE Minister Vasso Papandreou, even at this late hour, can either proceed with an integrated scheme and a proper information campaign for citizens, or she will end up, like her predecessors, on the long list of government officials who, though they recognized the size of the problem, possessed neither the will nor the ability to make changes. If the government chooses the latter path, then yet another major problem, among the many hanging over, will be inherited by Costas Karamanlis’s government. (1) Georgios Vlachos is New Democracy MP for the Attica Region.