No waste is wasted when recycling the Greek islands
Before the tiny Greek island of Tilos became a big name in recycling, tavern owner Aristoteles Chatzifountas knew that every time he threw his restaurant’s rubbish into a municipal bin down the street, it would end up in the local landfill.
The rubbish site had become a growing scourge on the island of now 500 people off the southern coast of Greece since ships began bringing in packaged goods from nearby islands in 1960.
Six decades later, in December last year, the island launched a major campaign to solve its pollution problem. Now, it recycles up to 86% of its waste, a record in Greece, according to the authorities, and the landfill is closed.
Chatzifountas said it only took a month to get used to separating his waste into three bins – one for organic matter; the other for paper, plastic, aluminum and glass; and the third for everything else.
“Closing the landfill was the right solution,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We need a permanent and greener response.”
Tilos’ triumph over waste puts it ahead in a kind of inter-island race, as Greece catches up to meet tough recycling targets set by the European Union (EU) and institutions, businesses and governments around the world are adopting zero waste policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“We know how to win races,” said Deputy Mayor of Tilos Spyros Aliferis. “But it’s not a sprint. That’s the first step (and) it’s not easy.
The island’s performance contrasts with that of Greece as a whole. In 2019, the country only recycled and composted a fifth of its municipal waste, putting it 24th out of 27 countries ranked by the EU statistics office.
This falls far short of EU targets to recycle or prepare for reuse 55% of municipal waste by weight by 2025 and 65% by 2035.
Greece has taken action against the throwaway culture, such as forcing stores to charge customers for single-use plastic bags.
Still, “we’re quite behind when it comes to recycling and reuse here,” said Dimitrios Komilis, professor of solid waste management at Democritus University of Thrace in northern Greece.
Recycling can reduce global warming emissions by reducing the need to make new products with raw materials, the extraction of which is carbon-heavy, Komilis added.
Getting rid of landfills can also slow the release of methane, another potent greenhouse gas produced when organic materials such as food and vegetation are buried in landfills and rot in low oxygen conditions.
And environmental groups note that zero-waste programs can generate more jobs than landfilling or incinerating, because collecting, sorting and recycling waste is more labor intensive.
But achieving zero waste isn’t as simple as following Tilos’ example – every region or city generates and manages waste differently, said researcher Dominik Noll, who works on sustainable island transitions at the Institute of Vienna social ecology.
“Technical solutions can be extended, but the socio-economic and socio-cultural contexts are always different,” he said.
“Each project or program must pay attention to these contexts in order to implement waste reduction and treatment solutions.”
Tilos has earned a reputation as a testing ground for Greece’s green ambitions, becoming the first Greek island to ban hunting in 1993 and, in 2018, one of the first islands in the Mediterranean to operate primarily on land. wind and solar energy.
For its “Just Go Zero” project, the island has partnered with Polygreen, a Piraeus-based business network promoting a circular economy, which aims to eliminate waste and pollution from supply chains.
Several times a week, Polygreen sends around ten local employees to go door to door to collect household and professional waste, which they then sort manually.
Antonis Mavropoulos, a consultant who designed Polygreen’s operation, said the “secret” to successful recycling is maximizing the market value of the waste.
“The more you separate, the more valuable the materials,” he said, explaining that waste collected in Tilos is sold to recycling companies in Athens.
One morning in June, workers were milling around the floor of the Polygreen recycling facility, perched next to the disused landfill in the arid mountains of Tilos.
They quickly separated a colorful assortment of waste into 25 streams – from used vegetable oil, destined to become biodiesel, to cigarette butts, which are dismantled to be composted or turned into materials like sound insulation.
Organic waste is composted. But some waste, like medical masks or used towels, can’t be recycled, so Polygreen shreds it, to be turned into solid recovered fuel for the cement industry on the continent.
More than 100 tonnes of municipal solid waste – the equivalent of the weight of nearly 15 large African elephants – has been sorted so far, said project manager Daphne Mantziou.
The project cost less than €250,000 ($254,550) to set up – and, according to figures from Polygreen, running it is no more than the combined cost of a regular municipal waste management operation and the new tax of €20 per tonne of landfill waste that Greece presented in January.
More than ten Greek municipalities and some smaller countries have expressed interest in replicating the project, said company spokesperson Elli Panagiotopoulou, who declined to give details.
Replicating Tilos’ success on a larger scale could be tricky, said Noll, the sustainability researcher.
Big cities may have the money and the infrastructure to effectively manage their waste, but recruiting key officials and millions of households is a more difficult undertaking, he said.
“It’s just easier to engage with people on a more personal level in a smaller municipality,” Noll said.
When the island of Paros, about 200km northwest of Tilos, decided to clean up, it faced a city-sized challenge, said Zana Kontomanoli, who leads the Clean Blue initiative Paros run by Common Seas, a UK-based social enterprise. .
The island’s population of around 12,000 increases during the tourist season when hundreds of thousands of visitors lead to a 5,000% increase in waste, including 4.5 million plastic bottles a year, Kontomanoli said.
In response, Common Seas launched an island-wide campaign in 2019 to reduce bottled water consumption, one of its many anti-plastic pollution projects.
Using street banners and on-screen messages on ferries, the idea was to dispel the common but misguided belief that local water is not safe to drink.
The share of visitors who think they can’t drink the island’s tap water has fallen from 100% to 33%, Kontomanoli said.
“If we can prevent these plastic bottles from coming to the island, we think that’s a better solution” than recycling them, she said.
Another anti-waste group thinking big is the nonprofit DAFNI Sustainable Greek Islands Network, which has been sending workers in electric vehicles to collect waste for recycling and reuse on the island of Kythnos since last summer. .
Project manager Despina Bakogianni said this was once touted as “the biggest tech innovation project ever on a Greek island” – but the race for zero waste is now heating up, and there are already plans more ambitious in progress.
These include CircularGreece, a new €16 million initiative that DAFNI has joined with five Greek islands and several mainland regions, such as Athens, all aiming to reuse and recycle more and boost the use of renewable energy.
“It will be the largest circular economy project in Greece,” Bakogianni said. —Thomson Reuters Foundation