The growing garbage heap

How many of us know that a toothbrush actually weighs 1.5 kilos, a cell phone around 75 kilos, a computer 1.5 metric tons and a gold ring 2 tons? The weight of a full bag of trash is much heavier than we may imagine. There isn’t a scale on which we can weigh the natural resources that have gone into producing what we throw away, the so-called hidden rubbish. In fact, every time we throw out garbage without recycling it, we also throw away the energy, water and other resources needed to produce it, discarding 50 kilos of natural resources for every 500 kilos of trash we produce. And our world is producing more material goods than ever before. Sustainable consumption «Our trash reflects our way of life,» says Nikos Chrysogelos, from the Ecological Recycling Society, which is working with with the SOS Mediterranean Network to implement programs that inform the public about sustainable consumption. «Our garbage,» he told Kathimerini, «reflects the things we choose to buy, our overall attitude to the environment.» For instance, do we choose to buy items that come without excessive packaging? Do we recycle? Do we avoid consuming for the sake of consuming? In the case of Greece, the answers our trash provides on our behalf are all negative. We are not entirely responsible for this, however, as Chrysogelos explains. «The public have realized that we need to reuse items and recycle as much as possible, but we haven’t the necessary infrastructure,» he says. «We lag far behind in this respect. At the moment in Greece, we recycle only 33 percent of the paper, 29 percent of aluminum and just 22 percent of the glass using in packaging. And these figures are not the result of recycling programs but mainly of supermarket returns. And this is at a time when the figures for other countries are above 80 percent.» Naturally, this entails not just an environmental cost but an economic cost. And that is not just the fines that the EU has imposed in cases such as the garbage dump at Kouroupitos. When we discard material without reusing it, we waste raw materials that are valuable for industry. But by 2005, Greece must meet its obligation to the EU to use 50-65 percent of its waste and recycle at least 25-45 percent. In fact this goal should have been met by 2000, but Greece asked for an extension of time. «Even so, it’s doubtful whether we will manage,» comments Chrysogelos. «We haven’t even taken advantage of the Olympic Games to get recycling programs up and running.» Apart from that, we also have to implement policies for reducing the amount of water used. Greece is one of the countries that, instead of decreasing the amount of waste, is increasing it by 4 percent a year. From 2 million metric tons in 1970, we now produce 4.5 million tons a year. Recycling could help reduce energy consumption and consequently greenhouse gas production, an objective which Greece has espoused. «To be precise,» adds Chrysogelos, «according to the Kyoto protocol, Greece has the right to increase its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 to 2010, but even that does not seem to have been achieved, as the figure has long since been exceeded.» (It is estimated that by 2010, Greek emissions will have risen 39-40 percent over 1999.) «As with garbage, energy is being wasted here. We have not yet worked out a program that can be implemented in transportation, industry and homes. On the contrary, the demand for air conditioners, for example, is constantly growing, and we do not use renewable sources of energy.»