Waste not, want not

For those who had the staying power to follow the ongoing saga of the Grammatiko landfill, it probably came as no surprise that yet another court intervened this week to stop the dump from being built, at least for the time being. How the ruling of a minor court beyond the city’s borders can stop work on this desperately needed landfill when the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, has already ruled that it should be built next to a small community northeast of Athens is one of the vagaries of the Greek justice system. So many legal documents have now been generated in connection to this landfill that once all the appeals have finished, authorities will have to build another dump just to dispose of the paperwork. And it will be a dump, rather than a recycling plant, because that’s what Greeks do with their waste: They throw it away. As figures recently published by the European Union show, almost more than any of the other 27 member states, Greece sends its rubbish to landfills. Although Greeks still generate less garbage than the average EU citizen, we have been doing our best over the last two decades to catch up. Each of us is now throwing away 448 kilos of rubbish every year, compared to an EU average of 522. However, 345 kg of our trash end up in landfills. The average for the 27-nation bloc is 213 kg. Only Bulgaria, Estonia, Cyprus, Malta and Lithuania send more rubbish to dumps than we do. This makes the creation of more landfills an absolute necessity but at the same time part of the problem. As environmentalists point out, building more landfills is just a stopgap solution and acts as a disincentive for finding other ways of disposing of our waste, such as recycling, which remains desperately low in Greece. It’s clear that the state lacks the organization and vision to deal with the issue – the mad rush to get work at Grammatiko under way was motivated in large part by the knowledge that EU funding for the project would be withdrawn unless a repeatedly extended deadline was finally met. For there to be a shift in how he we deal with our refuse, there has to be a change at the individual level. Greeks have to stop believing that their garbage is someone else’s problem. You can sense this attitude walking along any Greek street: People will fling open dumpsters with one finger, throw their rubbish in and then fail to close the lid as if in fear of being contaminated by some flesh-eating bacteria, while homeowners will spray the sidewalk in front of their houses with an endless stream of water only to push dirt and trash in front of someone else’s property. If this is the prevailing frame of mind then trying to convince Greeks that recycling, composting or reducing waste are things they have to start doing is like trying to talk someone who has already suffered sunstroke into wearing a hat. One of the few hopes we have is that people will be shamed into changing their ways. Greeks pride themselves on the cleanliness of their homes but if visitors keep telling us that we are treating everything beyond our front doorstep as one giant rubbish tip, it might dent our dignity enough to prompt a reaction. It’s no coincidence that one of the first letters this newspaper ever received and the first e-mail response to our invitation for readers to tell us what they like and dislike about Athens (see Page 10) were from visitors to this country complaining about the rubbish problem. While many of us have become desensitized to the sight and smell of trash in the street or countryside, visitors pick up on it immediately. If we could start seeing our surroundings through their eyes, perhaps we would think about the waste we generate and how we dispose of it, rather than just fueling the demand for more landfills.