Thessaloniki struggles to promote awareness of environmental initiatives

Recycling and trash bins like these, photographed in a residential area of Thessaloniki, can be found on nearly every corner throughout the city.
Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker

Story by Gwendolyn Schanker ·

THESSALONIKI, Greece – Large plastic blue bins dot the streets of Thessaloniki, intended for citizens to dispose of their plastic, paper and aluminum. The ubiquitous – and often chock-full – receptacles signify rising awareness of recycling initiatives, but Greece still has a long way to go in embracing environmental awareness.

The EU has set a goal of recycling 50 percent of household waste by 2020. According to the European Environment Agency, only 19 percent of municipal waste was recycled in Greece in 2014, the last year for which data are available. That number has risen by nearly 10 percent over the last decade, but is still low when Greece is compared to other European countries: For example, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland all recycle more than 50 percent of their waste.

Eleni Bakirtzi

Eleni Bakirtzi, supervisor of a waste management agency, said a weak economy has affected Greece’s recycling efforts.
Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker

Eleni Bakirtzi attributes the country’s lower recycling levels to the ongoing economic crisis, which has led to lost jobs and reduced funds for initiatives in the environmental sector. Bakirtzi is supervisor of the technical projects department at the Regional Association of Solid Waste Management Agencies of Central Macedonia, or FODSA translated in Greek. She points out that the crisis, which has affected all aspects of life in Greece since 2010, has created a distraction for many and has made it more difficult to push for environmental awareness.

“People don’t have [recycling] as their first priority,” said Bakirtzi, adding, “If it wasn’t for the crisis, things would be very, very different right now.”  

The job of FODSA, whose headquarters is located in Thessaloniki, is to maintain the 11 landfills in the greater Thessaloniki region. The number of facilities has increased as the amount of solid waste in the landfills has increased over time.

FODSA also helps to increase awareness about environmental problems by hosting events and working with schools within the city’s 14 municipalities, which are managed on an individual level.

“We try to develop the culture [of environmental awareness] by cooperating with municipalities and schools in Central Macedonia,” said Michael Geranis, president of the association, through a translator.

Those environmental initiatives include school programs as well as an environmental park in Thermi, a municipality in the southern part of Thessaloniki that was formerly a waste disposal site. After restoration by FODSA, the site is now a public green space where school groups come to play and learn how to care for the environment they live in.

The Thessaloniki-based waste management association is part of a larger non-profit, non-governmental organization known as the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), whose mission is to promote and develop sustainable waste management around the world. That’s a tall order, especially in an urban area like Thessaloniki.  

Geranis and his colleagues are working to promote a unified message about how recycling is a necessary means to preserve the environment for the next generation, but as he said, it takes time to change a state of mind.

Raising awareness for the environment

According to Yannis Tsougrakis, who manages recycling initiatives at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, one of the main challenges of changing attitudes is getting the attention of both faculty and students.

“Most of the people here [at the university] live in their own world,” Tsougrakis said. “They don’t deal with these things. You have to take them by the hand and show them.”

Yannis has been at the university’s Environment Office since it was founded in 2010. He said the office started with seven employees but has been narrowed to two after the country’s economic crisis forced layoffs. As manager of recycling, he ensures the collection of waste from bins with four different designations where students and faculty can sort their disposable items. He also helps to manage recycling of chemical waste from labs on campus, and facilitates separate recycling of paper and lamps.

Yannis Tsougrakis

Yannis Tsougrakis, who manages recycling initiatives at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker

According to Tsougrakis, the amount of recycled paper at the university has climbed from roughly 66,000 pounds in 2014 to about  120,000 pounds in 2016. Furthermore, the system at Aristotle University is actually more comprehensive than the municipal disposal system, where there is only one blue bin for pedestrians to dispose of all of their recyclables.

Tsougrakis said that the simplicity of the system of recycling in Thessaloniki is part of what has increased recycling levels over the past decade, but having only one bin is not ideal because the paper, plastic and metal materials are not properly sorted.

“Even after all these campaigns [the Environment Office has had], you cannot catch them all,” he said, referring to the students and faculty at Aristotle University. “It’s not that people don’t care. They’re just not paying attention.”

One way to increase attention to recycling is with financial incentives. George Stengos is the CEO and co-founder of Cyclefi, an Athens-based startup that uses identification tags on disposal bags which, when filled with glass, paper or plastic and transferred to a recycling center, give users discounts that allow them to reduce household expenses such as Internet and electricity.

For example, users can use their points to purchase a mobile Internet package that adds data to their sim card or a “Cyclefi Hotspot” that allows them to connect to the Internet via their mobile devices.

“You are able to track your bag in the recycling center,” said Stengos of Cyclefi, which as of May 2017 had nearly 4,000 enrolled users. “We collect the tags, and every time we scan the tags you earn points.”

Stengos said the “gamification” element of the Cyclefi system, along with the fact that it can lead to financial savings, is what keeps customers engaged.

“In order to have a positive impact that lasts long, you need something that happens every day,” Stengos said. “You need to provide them a reward where citizens are going to get a benefit every other day or so. This is what Cyclefi does.”

Yiannis Boutaris, Thessaloniki’s mayor, points out the strides that have been made since he took office in 2011 despite the economic crisis, and said he thinks the municipalities of Thessaloniki are “doing a good job” of increasing recycling rates.

“People are starting to realize that treating the garbage [recycling] brings money to the state,” Boutaris said.  

Changing attitudes

Aside from searching for more efficient methods of waste disposal and raising environmental awareness, Geranis and his colleagues at FODSA are also faced with the challenge of managing the Roma people, known by English-speakers as “gypsies,” who embody an unconventional definition of recycling.

Michael Geranis looking at camera

Michael Geranis, president of the Regional Association of Solid Waste Management Agencies of Central Macedonia.
Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker

Throughout the day in Thessaloniki, members of the city’s Roma community can be seen carefully removing items from trash and recycling bins in order to resell. They collect anything from small recyclables to furniture, which they wheel back to their neighborhoods to sort. Geranis said this issue, which is difficult to manage as well as unsanitary, isn’t unique to Thessaloniki.

“This is a global problem,” he said. “They’re not only stealing material from the bins but there are people and especially kids in the landfill, taking material from the landfill. They go and sell it to the ones that are merchandising recyclable ingredients.”

He points out that one of ISWA’s goals is to make the Roma people “part of the solution” by integrating them into the economy. One 2008 study from researchers at the European Commission and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki discusses how one way to address this issue is through the formation of cooperatives in the so-called “social economy,” which can be more economically sustainable because it is separate from the private and public sectors. By employing members of the Roma community in Greece as garbage collectors, the study argues, the Greek government could boost employment for an underserved group while also improving the waste management infrastructure.

Bakirtzi said integrating the Roma population into Greece’s recycling infrastructure remains an option for the international waste management association, but is not a top priority.

In many ways, when it comes to recycling initiatives in Greece, there’s a need for a paradigm shift. Stengos said that many Greeks live in the present, and aren’t always thinking about how their country needs to be preserved for the next generation.

“Greeks, they act for today and don’t care about tomorrow, and that’s the main problem,” Stengos said. “The hard part is not [explaining] the benefits of recycling. It’s about how you explain to people that it’s about the next generation.”

Stengos views the economic crisis as a time for the country to reflect on its past mistakes, which include a lack of attention toward recycling initiatives. He said politicians in Greece have not placed enough focus on developing a program for environmental education. This leads to less material being recycled and sorted, and down the line, will lead to increased carbon emissions and increased contributions toward global climate change.

“I think the crisis is going to help us start again. It’s a tipping point,” he said. “We are here because we did many things wrong. One of these things is an environmental indifference and bad practices.”

For Bakirtzi and her colleagues at FODSA, preserving the splendor of Greece’s landscape is a top priority, and recycling is an important step along the way.

“You need to think what you’re going to leave behind for your kids,” Geranis said. “We all grew up in a different environment [than today]. You can see the difference now. You want to leave it as you found and better.”

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