It was June 2021, and I had just arrived in Athens on my international flight from the United States. I chose to stay in the southern suburbs in the town Voula, known for its spacious beachfront parks and pricey real estate. But even in an upper class neighborhood with expensive homes and fancy shops, a deeply engrained ‘cultural phenomenon’ was lurking. My accommodation was in a large apartment building across the street from a lush park and a block away from the beach. I was on my balcony looking out on to the sea and the waves of buildings of Voula as they ascended the slopes of Mount Immitos.
I could clearly see down into the adjacent park and the people enjoying their time outside in the summer sun. My eyes connected with an old man sweeping up trash from the sidewalk and doorway in front of the apartment building. I was so pleased and relieved to see this act of kindness because trash pollution can be seen throughout Athens and Greece in general. What happened next was shocking. A dumpster was a few feet from the doorway of the apartment building. The man, with a dustpan full of trash, disregarded the dumpster and proceed to dump all of the trash into the park. This person happened to be the building manager of my apartment accommodation, and I was able to speak with him as I was heading out for the day. I had to know what compelled him to do what he did. His only explanation and response for his actions were “let the city come and clean it.”
In a country so blessed with beauty in its natural, historic, and traditional aspects, what causes this deeply ingrained resentment and disrespect? The truth is that this man’s act of protest against the city would not elicit a response from those in power, but it sends a message and an example to his community. A message that there is no sense of respect or care for the environment.
Cleaning the trash in public places is indeed the responsibility of local municipalities – but that certainly does not justify citizens’ littering or contributing to the pollution. The anger citizens feel has roots, and for some they originate in the indifference of those in power. This creates a vicious cycle, whereby municipalities fail to clean up or enforce laws against trash pollution, and citizens follow their example by not caring for the environment either.
Cigarettes and plastic coffee cups have become addictive staples of people’s daily lives. These items quickly make their way in to our ecosystems where they degrade and leak toxic chemicals and microplastics in to the water system and soil. Stopping or preventing these chemicals from being absorbed in to agricultural food or water sources is a very difficult and often impossible task.
The popular tourism industry is a contributor to the trash piling up as well since Greece regularly welcomes tens of millions of visitors annually. There are many marketing campaigns created by government and government-affiliated groups promoting Greece as a travel destination, but there are few campaigns speaking of environmental protection in the form or social responsibility and stopping littering.
Scholars at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens have researched how local politics and community culture in Greece, have become road blocks to effective environmental protection laws. Focus tends to primarily be on economics or professional gains from doing business in the European Union, which ultimately comes at a cost for the natural environment. Rapid urbanization and industrialization with a lack of proper regulation has led to habitat loss and pollution in various ecosystems and communities throughout Greece. For generations there has been a disconnect to the value of protecting nature in Greece and the benefits it provides. With little dialogue about trash and its polluting effects, destructive habits get passed down through family and peers and become normalized in everyday society.
There are various organizations that have emerged over the last few years, that aim to clean up the trash pollution in Greece and start an important conversation. The trash we see along the shoreline and on city streets is matched in intensity with the trash found in the trash sea. Organizations like Enaleia are working with fisherman to clean up deep sea trash like fishing nets, while other groups like Save Your Hood are cleaning up the pollution on land in each neighborhood. Their efforts and the example they are setting through their work are vital for a cultural shift to happen.
There is much to gain from environmental protection laws and an increased commitment to social responsibility. One of the most important reasons for them is to better public health by ensuring food and water sources are free from toxins and microplastics. Passing and enforcing environmental protection laws will protect the unique landscapes of Greece and all of the diverse plant and animal life. Enforced laws that cause a shift away from habits like littering will have positive effects on communities by fostering a shared sense of responsibility and cohesiveness. Along with better laws and initiatives, education and conversations about these issues will ensure long term success in changing people’s habits and understanding. Environmental Education and specifically, Climate Change education are topics that if standard in school curriculums, will prepare the next generation to be innovators and leaders in fighting the climate crisis . Someone once told me with regard to the trash pollutio n problem, however, that, “change is slow.”
Trash pollution contributes to Climate Change, which is a very urgent issue that will affect our health and livelihoods. The next generation of kids deserve to have safe spaces, like parks that are free of trash and other pollutants. Accounts of environmental pollution and degradation were being noted as early as 400 BC by the philosopher and teacher Plato. He spoke in depth about how human settlements like the city of Athens exploited natural resources until they disappeared. This kind of environmental consciousness in now needed in our representatives and neighbors alike, so that we can improve the environment and in turn create a better quality of life. In order to combat trash pollution and the effects of Climate Change, we must take responsibility for our individual actions. In doing so, we set a precedent for what we expect from our elected leaders and local enforcement agencies. A movement of eco-conscious organizations and businesses are emerging in Greece, sparking new and nee ded conversations. Join the movement by protecting Greece from trash pollution and adding to the conversation!