Greece lags behind EU partners in its waste management

The true weight of a toothbrush is 1.5 kilos, that of a mobile phone 75 kilos, according to European Commissioner for the Environment Margot Wallstrom, in summarizing the major problem of waste management in Europe. Wallstrom explained that what we throw away is not simply the piece of rubbish itself, but the resources used to produce it. The numbers speak for themselves. In Europe as a whole, the volume of urban waste is continually increasing and is now about 540 kilos per person. (The European Commission has set a target of about 300 kilos per person.) A small percentage of urban waste is recycled in Europe, so management is one of the most crucial problems. Around 306 million tons of urban solid waste a year are produced, of which 57 percent is buried. In Greece Burying rubbish is the most customary way of dealing with waste in Greece, but the main problem is not the absence of alternative methods (we recycle 8 percent of urban waste, but composting and incineration with or without producing energy is almost non-existent). The biggest problem by far is the treatment of waste destined for burial. In fact, in most cases it is not even buried, but dumped on hillsides, in gorges or anywhere else our «environmental conscience» allows us to consider an acceptable place to dump garbage. Of the 3.5 million tons of solid waste produced in 1997 (the most recent data from Eurostat), half (1.75 million) was sent to «controlled» burial sites. The rest is scattered around the country, making the need for a comprehensive waste management program extremely vital, even though we produce comparatively less garbage than other Europeans; our per capita waste production is 372 kilos annually, compared to European average of 540 kilos per capita. Limiting burial At the same time, other European countries are trying to reduce the percentage of urban waste destined for burial, preferring recycling, incineration and composting. Burial of waste has been reduced from 67 percent of all waste collected in 1995 to 57 percent in 1999, while incineration, composting and recycling have increased correspondingly. Nevertheless, the percentage of waste recycled in many countries in Europe remains relatively low. Only in some countries in Western Europe has there been a significant rise in the recycling of certain materials. In the European Union as a whole, recycling (including composting) of urban waste was of the order of 11 percent in 1985-99, rising to 21 percent in 1995 and 29 percent in 2000. A comparison of EU member states of similar size and population indicates the extent of Greece’s delay in its efforts to manage waste effectively. Greece has the highest percentage of waste that is buried, while Portugal (with which it is usually compared) makes use of all the alternative methods. In fact, all of Portugal’s waste is taken to organized, controlled landfill sites. Spain appears to be having even greater problems with its waste. Of the 17.4 million tons that are supposedly buried, only 9.7 million tons end up in properly organized sites; Switzerland suffers from a similar problem. As for other countries of a similar size, Belgium recycles or otherwise processes (by incineration, for example) over 70 percent of its waste; in Austria, nearly 40 percent is composted for the purpose of creating organic fertilizer. Incineration for power production is an important method of urban waste management. In Western Europe, 18 percent of waste was allotted for this purpose in 1999, up from 17 percent in 1995. Countries where a high percentage of waste is incinerated, recycled or otherwise processed (such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria) have developed technology due to high concentrations of population and the existence of effective transport networks. Although the Environment and Public Works Ministry says it is open to the idea of incinerating waste within a comprehensive management system, the likelihood of this method becoming a widespread practice in Greece is limited, because of the type of waste we produce. Greece has the largest percentage of organic waste (food scraps, fruit, vegetables, meat). Over half of our urban waste is of this kind, and just 18 percent is paper and paper products, 4 percent is fabric, 10 percent is glass and just 3 percent is glass and metal. Countries that burn a large percentage of their waste produce far less organic waste and higher volumes of other categories. So recycling appears to be the best solution, also referred to in the European Commission’s latest strategy. The Commission has invited all interested parties (such as governments, local government organizations, environmental groups, tertiary institutions) to submit their proposals by November. The new strategy for preventing and recycling waste will be presented within 2004, but Wallstrom has already set the tone. «A product we throw away is more than just a piece of rubbish, as it contains the resources used to produce it. If you add up all these resources, the real weight of a toothbrush is 1.5 kilos and of a mobile phone 75 kilos.» The new strategy, which will inevitably affect Greece, provides for more comprehensive recycling (for example, there are provisions for the recycling of paper packaging but not of office paper) and the introduction of fines for disposing of non-recyclable material.