Friday, 1 June 2007

Protecting the Environment

In his interview with the Athens News this week, Greece's waste management tsar, Adamantios Skordilis, sees national recycling efforts in a positive light. We've come a long way in three years, he says. 

A glance at the figures recently provided by his boss, Public Works Minister George Souflias, bears him out. Almost a quarter of the estimated four million tonnes of waste Greece produces each year - 886,000 tonnes - was recycled in 2006, Souflias said. That includes everything from beer cans to vehicles. 

It is true that New Democracy has proceeded apace with the introduction into Greek law of European directives to recycle such things as end-of-life vehicles, machine oil, batteries and refrigerators. But the most rapidly growing rubbish sector - and 370,000 tonnes of Souflias' figure - is packaging waste. Even by Souflias' admission, only a third of the total is being reclaimed.

There are many reasons for the failure to reclaim household waste. The Hellenic Recovery and Recycling Corporation (HERRCO), responsible for recycling household waste nationwide, wants residents to sort paper, metal, plastic and glass from their general rubbish and place them in blue dumpsters, present in almost half of Greece's municipalities. But it did not spend any of its 26 million euro budget last year advertising the programme; nor did any of the 400-odd municipalities who are participating in it. Clearly, there needs to be a campaign.

Municipalities, who are the rubbish collectors, are the weak link in household waste. Being politically coloured, they often refuse to work with one another. For the first three years of New Democracy's reign, for instance, the Association of Attica Municipalities and Communities (ESDKNA), which oversees landfilling for the capital, was socialist-dominated. The predominantly blue municipalities of eastern Attica refused to participate and for a while contemplated forming their own waste management body. What kept them from doing so was that none of them wanted to be the site of the new landfill that would need to be created and managed.

To this day they dump rubbish illegally. In last year's local elections, ESDKNA came under conservative majority control. Its new head, Kifissia Mayor Nikos Hiotakis, says he wants to centralise waste management for the capital under his banner. That makes eminent good sense.

The greatest problem with the municipalities is that they have no incentive to recycle. ESDKNA charges its members a flat six percent of municipal income each year, while outside Attica most dump illegally for free. The illegal landfills need to be replaced by monitored ones, and municipalities need to be charged by the tonne.

The most effective way to advertise the blue bin programme is to tell people that their municipal charges will drop if they comply.

But the failure to recycle goes beyond advertising and gathering materials. Greece has never been a heavily industrialised economy. It does not have local smelters that can make the most effective use of discarded metals on a small scale; it has no paper mills, only two companies that make glass (one now recycles) and none that can put plastic to new use.

ESDKNA tried to overcome this problem by building what is touted as Europe's biggest recycling factory at Ano Liosia. It cost 75 million euros and is, at best, a non-disaster. It can separate metals and put biodegradeables out to compost, but industry has until now turned away its refuse-derived fuel (wood chip and plastic) as sub-par. Skordilis tells this newspaper he has struck a deal to send the fuel to a cement manufacturer, but it remains to be seen at what cost. The reason the plant failed is that the contractor's reward was not performance-related. The plant was the child of tax euros, which are there to be spent.

Private industry ought to be given more of a say in recycling. Given that transport is often prohibitively expensive (and reduces the benefit of recycling), local businesses ought to be given an opportunity to bid for contracts to process materials in new plants. The know-how exists in Europe (Czech companies put on a dazzling show of technology in Athens last month) and Greece is awash with rubbish and entrepreneurs.
There are worse examples of recycling failure than household waste. The most egregious is sewage, and here Souflias has not dealt with the situation effectively. Pasok governments left him with a partial treatment plant for Attica, on the island of Psyttaleia off Piraeus. It produces clean water and condensed raw sewage that has to be shipped abroad for treatment at great taxpayer cost.

Once again, it is the end user - private industry - that has not been met half-way. Psyttaleia was to have included a final stage in which the sludge was baked into dry fuel bricks.

The insistence by both private contractors and the public sector on seeing rubbish as a subsidy opportunity rather than a business opportunity has led to several dead ends - uncollected materials across the land, a recycling white elephant at Ano Liosia and a sewage plant so ridiculously under wraps that it amounts to a feculent Alcatraz.

It is right that the public and private sectors should work together in waste management; but the only way recycling is going to complete the industrial cycle is by making marketable materials. For all the good public policy intentions, both sides in Greece have failed to work on the problem backwards - from the marketplace to the landfill.

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