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Plastic bags and recycling in Athens

Plastic bags and recycling in Athens

“Do you need a plastic bag, miss?” asked the cashier at Marks and Sparks as I was buying some delish take away meals. I was delighted to dig into the tasty-healthy salads, snacks and deserts in Cambridge last week but that’s going to be another post.

Without giving the cashier’s question a thought I replied “Yes”, only to take it back seconds after. I do not need a bag. Plastic bags are a dirty luxury our environment can’t afford. But: thank you for asking.

I had gotten used to Greek plastic bag ethics where you are not asked but automatically covered with plastic bags. Greeks love to pack, foil, wrap. Everything.

Environmental concerns are not exactly top on the list of priorities for average Athenians.

According to the Ecological Recycling Society in central Athens, one-fifth of the entire waste produced by Greece is plastic but just 1% of it is recycled. Plastic bottles have a shocking life span of 300-600 years, plastic rings live 450 years, plastic bags 35 to 60 years. 8 million tonnes of waste end up in the Mediterranean Sea everyday. Greece is at least 15 years behind the rest of the EU in almost all areas of recycling and is not meeting EU targets.

Shopping here means to expand your extensive plastic bag collection. If you don’t do that, you are a foreigner or strange. Concepts of sustainability are laughed at.

Supermarkets are at the stage of ‘take a plastic bag for your plastic bag because you have just bought garbage bags’. You need to put fruit and vegetables, be it just a lemon, in a plastic bag before staff can weigh it and put a sticker on it because the sticker goes on the plastic bag and not on fruit. If you buy another fruit or vegetable it cannot go in the same bag. It needs another sticker and two stickers on one bag confuses the cashier.

Even on a local ‘organic‘ out door market the same plastic wrap procedure applies.

My idea of reusing paper bags was not appreciated but I asked supermarket staff at the vegetable counter to put more fruit and stickers on ONE paper bag, avoiding plastic bags altogether. Problematic and off-putting or motivating and leading to small success, eventually.

grocery paper bags

Tomek and I have been earning strange looks packing stuff into our own bags.

In Athens, dealing with waste is being arranged as comfortably as possible and that means that you are not confronted with four bins in the kitchen but one.

ALL the trash goes into that one bin. Glass, paper, plastic, any waste an average Greek family may produce. You then walk down the street to find an open container to throw your trash away. Same applies to electrical equipment, building material, clothes and furniture.

Recycling‘ is the job of unemployed and illegal immigrants.

Black African immigrants collecting trash in Athens


They walk around the centre with their trolleys and get the most out of it.

Black African immigrants collecting trash in Athens


People are sorting through trash containers everyday. This is a typical situation seen from our apartment window. The fridge disappeared within one hour.

recycling African man goes through trash


Not much is left after a thorough recycling process.

man with shopping cart and junk Athens


Collecting and carrying around old equipment is a common sight in Athens. Is this going to the famous Monastiraki flea market?

carrying old computer stuff Athens


The trash of most expensive neighbourhoods such as Kolonaki goes for a ride.

Immigrants pushing carts with trash


Containers are inspected frequently and mostly by poor black African individuals.

Black African immigrants collecting trash in Athens


Parked cars on foreign plates, many from Romania, are packed with old stuff till they burst.

Packed Romanian car in Athens Greece


Or they drive around to pick up trash to sell on the markets.

trash collectors Athens


Recycling bins so common in most European cities are a rare sight in Athens and then most of these fancy recycling stations are damaged and do not work. I have read that Athens can show off Europe’s largest recycling plant which did cost 75 million Euros but ironically doesn’t work.

damaged recycling station in Athens Greece


An ignorant soul might say ‘Greeks seriously don’t give a shit‘ but the way I see it is that their priorities are centred more around life enjoyment and traditional anarchy. As long as the sun is shining there is a tomorrow.

graffiti and trash in Athens



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