Cleaning Athens, it’s not in the bag

Perhaps more than any other European capital, Athens always seems to be struggling to dispose of the trash produced by its flourishing population; striving after the ideal of a clean, modern city. The closest it came to achieving this elusive goal was in 2004 when an unprecedented campaign transformed it into a gleaming, smooth-running Olympic capital that most locals hardly recognized. Unfortunately these efforts, inspired by a tremendous influx of foreign visitors, were a one-off. Out of the glare of the international spotlight, Athens soon resumed its old look with overflowing trash bins and sidewalks riddled with construction site debris. Since the Games, a succession of cleanup initiatives, appealing to city-dwellers’ sense of duty to their community, has seen limited success. But the latest campaign by municipal authorities is employing stronger tactics, aiming to hit inconsiderate citizens and businessmen where it hurts: their pockets. Henceforth litterbugs will face on-the-spot fines, ranging from 20 euros to 8,000 euros. The smaller fines will be imposed upon those caught dumping their garbage bags outside green municipal bins. The larger penalties will go to store and restaurant owners dumping their voluminous – and already smelly – trash in municipal bins, often days before pickups are due. Those mindless and insensitive enough to dump trash on archaeological sites will be dealt with the most severely, facing fines of up to 8,000 euros. This is the theory, anyway. It remains to be seen whether such severe restrictions will be enforced. If they are, there is no reason why they shouldn’t work – similar schemes have been running in other European countries for decades. On that note, it is amusing to observe that most Greeks leave their bad habits behind when they holiday in other European cities. Why is this? Probably because they see most locals setting a greener example, but chiefly because they know they will be penalized if they fail to comply. If Greek authorities want citizens to behave themselves at home, they have to put their money where their mouth is and actually enforce a thorough crackdown. In the meantime, another initiative by local authorities – to curb the use of plastic bags by supermarkets – has pleased ecologists. The scheme, which aims to replace plastic bags with environmentally friendly cloth alternatives, already has the backing of all major supermarkets. It is a significant step forward in the challenge of training Greek consumers in greener ways. And hopefully it will have more success than a recycling initiative launched by the same authorities a few years ago. The recycling drive caught on initially, inspiring a large proportion of city-dwellers to sort their trash. Perhaps Athenians had had enough of their city resembling a construction site. In any case, they responded. It was the authorities – or the staff they employ – that failed to live up to expectations. There have been several reports of municipal trash disposal units emptying the blue bins set aside for recyclable products into regular trash trucks. It is rather irrelevant whether the blame lies with the trash gatherers for being indifferent or with the authorities for failing to pay trash gatherers enough to make them care. Either way, the result is the same. And how is it that the onus for change is on citizens when it is clear that their efforts may be thwarted by representatives of the very authority that is supposed to be enforcing these new regulations? This kind of attitude undermines any effort to instruct the public, and businessmen, of the need to protect the environment and curb climate change. How do authorities expect to instill a sense of responsibility in citizens accustomed to dumping trash wherever they want when the government is almost constantly under fire from Brussels for its arbitrary disposal of waste (most recently toxic waste)? The same logic applies to the recent state-backed drive to curb global warming. How much credence can one give to calls for energy-saving practices when government buildings don’t implement these practices themselves? How do authorities hope to boost investment in renewable energy sources when they continue to fund coal-fired electricity plants, using up dwindling natural resources and releasing more and more carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, despite stricter EU and UN warnings about global warming? Citizens, and businessmen, can do their bit individually but their efforts will make little difference without the support of a collective initiative. The main problem is that such hypocrisy does little to inspire citizens and, invariably, the majority follow the example set by those who govern them: preaching about cleanliness while tossing trash onto illegal landfills; complaining about the increasingly stifling atmosphere of the capital while driving CO2-spewing sports utility vehicles into Kolonaki to meet their friends for coffee. Financial penalties will help discourage such selfish and irresponsible behavior. But the attitude of these citizens – who are, unfortunately, the majority – will not change until a new example is set, and enforced, by the authorities.