A composter to dispose organic waste, such as fruit and vegetable peelings, seeds and cores, tea bags, coffee grounds, and filter papers, eggshells. Photo: Angelos Christofilopoulos

Is There A Zero-Waste Movement in Athens?

In short, are some residents using what they have to its fullest and not creating new waste that will end up in landfills?

lidia bajraktari
Dec 13, 2019 · 10 min read

On Friday the 20th of September, 2019, a global school strike took place, led by Swedish teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, ‘Time Person Of The Year For 2019’, first became known for her activism in August 2018 when, at age 15, she began spending her school days outside the Swedish parliament to call for stronger action on global warming by holding up a sign saying (in Swedish) “School strike for the climate.”

Soon, other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. Together, they organized a school climate strike movement under the name Fridays for Future. Over the last year, she has addressed the United Nations Climate Action Summit and held a TEDx Conference, as well as speak at various other events about climate change.

Over the last century, global sea levels have risen by 17 cm, which has largely been caused by melting ice in polar regions. More intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas since the 1970s, particularly in the tropics and subtropics.

Furthermore, according to the World Meteorological Organization, 20 out of the past 22 years have been the warmest years on record, with 2015–2018 making up the top four warmest years. Even if all the countries who have signed the Paris climate agreement were to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030, as agreed upon, the world would still warm by more than 3C by the end of this century.

Add to that the mass fires that broke out in the Amazon — while Jair Bolsonaro’s government stood inactive — and the alarming rates that the ice is melting in the Arctic, and it’s not hard to see how crucial it is that we start acting faster and in more efficient ways. So, what can be done by individuals to tackle all this?

The first step would be to start increasing the pressure on our governments to take action. The second step, on a more individual level, would be to start making changes in our daily lives and in our behavior towards our planet.

A good example of an individual positive effect of actions is the zero waste movement that has been growing over the past few years, which urges people to use less and reuse more. According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, zero waste is: “The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials, without burning them, and without discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”

In short, using what you have to its fullest and not creating new waste that will end up in landfills.

Illustration by Katerina Karali / POPAGANDA.

What is Greece doing

Greek governments have not exactly been pioneers in tackling climate change. One example of the ineptitude of the Greek government in its approach to recycling. While recycling bins were distributed throughout the country in 2006, as of 2013 they only cover about 75 percent of the country and are still being used for all recyclable garbage.

Individual garbage recycling bins (aluminum, paper, plastic, etc.) for home use are not widely available, and Greeks are not used to sort their garbage in their own homes. It is a common question among Greek households whether recycling really happens or not. As a result, by the end of 2018, Greece was still among the last EU countries when it came to recycling, with only 19 percent of the population being consistent about it.

Yet, it seems that more and more people who live in Greece are trying to adopt a zero-waste way of life on an individual level, despite the lack of action from the government. With a quick search on Facebook, it’s easy to find various zero waste private groups, like Zero Waste in Greece, for people living in Greece, where they exchange knowledge, ask questions, talk about products embracing the zero waste philosophy and advise each other about best practices.

According to Zoe Porfiri, one of the coordinators of the Zero Waste in Greece Facebook group, the most frequently talked about issue among the members of the group is the disposal of garbage: how it could be recycled or reused, and what products can be replaced in order to reduce the amount of new waste created.

Living a zero-waste life is not easy, per se, as it means that an individual has to make many changes in his/her life, even giving up some of the luxuries he/she is used to having. Eirini is, one of the members of the Zero Waste in Greece group, says that this sense of not wasting was instilled in her by her family from a young age, but that it was a Youtube video that made her want to take the leap and try living by the zero-waste philosophy.

“The first change I made was to replace paper napkins with fabric ones,” she says. “In the beginning, I did not tell anyone in my family to do the same, but soon enough, they all followed my lead and now no one uses paper napkins anymore.”

Among other members of the group, there are different answers as to how friends and family react to their way of life. Elias says that his family and friends just don’t follow his lead, yet for Christina, it’s a very different experience.

“I never had a problem with the people around me. I act as an example for them, I explain my reasons for living this way of life and if I see that they are positive then I encourage them to do the same. If someone changes habits because of me, then I am happy.”

A “tenant” of a composter. Photo: Angelos Chrtzistofilopoulos

The Zero Waste movement in Greece

Being zero waste in Greece does not come without its difficulties. “I live in a rural area where it is hard to find zero waste stores, but it is not impossible as long as you stick to your decision,” says Alexandra, who has adopted a zero-waste lifestyle.

In Athens, in particular, there is a growing community dedicated to reducing and reusing products, a reflection of which is the increasing number of zero-waste shops popping up around the Greek capital.

All across downtown Athens, there are vintage and secondhand clothing shops packed with people, and shops that sell products that can be reused, often for years, replacing single-use products. One such example is the shop, Plastikourgeio, which sells products such as bamboo toothbrushes and dinner sets, metallic straws, wooden cutlery, and reusable coffee cups.

When it comes to coffee drinking, Greeks are serious coffee drinkers with an average of 510 cups of coffee a year, 40 percent of which is ordered outside the home. According to Greenpeace, in Greece alone, 1 million single-use coffee cups are used daily. If individuals were to replace single-use coffee cups with reusable cups, this number would be greatly reduced.

Left: Kingka next to a 3D printer at Plastikourgeio. Right: Daphne Marnelis and Fran Vargas, owners of Plastikourgeio. Photo: Dimitris Sakalakis / FOS PHOTOS

What makes Plastikourgeio even more interesting as a business, is that the owners, have made a lab inside the store where plastic gathered from the surrounding buildings, stores, shops, and offices is used to create new objects with greater longevity.

“Our goal is not one-sided. We wish to make an integral part of our daily lives to reduce waste, reuse and recycle, and to instill this ‘buzz’ around to others around us to help protect the environment, to ‘give back life’ to the city’s blue recycling bins and to propose alternative waste management. At the same time, we want to satisfy our artistic sensibilities and the need to do something with our own hands,” states their website.

Another example of a business making a profit while also maintaining a zero-waste approach is Stefanie Behrendt’s apartment, Stefanie Behrendt, a young woman in her 20s, studied real estate management, has a degree in property development, and 10 years of working experience in the field. She also has a strong love of nature, which is exactly what inspired her to create an almost zero-waste apartment for rent in Athens.

How to wash cookware.
Stefanie Behrendt, an Austrian expatriate and real estate manager in her zero-waste apartment in Athens. Photo: Angelos Christofilopoulos

Located in downtown Athens, the apartment offers its guests all the amenities necessary to avoid producing waste. In doing so, it encourages guests to try the waste-free lifestyle for as long as their stay lasts. For example, in the kitchen, there are reusable bags to take to the supermarket and ingredients for the guests to make their own detergents in order to wash the dishes. The kitchen is equipped with vegan and local bulk food items such as Aegean sea salt, olive oil from Kalamata, bulgur, lentils, rice, tea, herbs, and spices, among other things, which Stefanie Behrendt purchases in the local bulk markets. Hanging on the walls of the kitchen, guests can find recipes for making their own natural detergents with material already provided in the house. They can also experiment with composting by using the composter in the kitchen to dispose of their organic waste, such as fruit and vegetable peelings, seeds and cores, tea bags, coffee grounds, and filter papers, paper towels, eggshells or tissues (not if they have touched meat). While the founder is still trying to answer the question about what happens with the toilet trash, staying in a waste-free apartment like Stefanie’s is an ideal way of seeing how easy it would be to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, and how simple adjustments in one’s own lifestyle can go a long way.

You can follow the Zero Waste FB page and join the Zero Waste community of Athens here.

Zero Waste Fashion

It can be argued that the financial crisis of the last decade unwittingly made Greeks more zero waste friendly, at least in terms of fashion and clothing. All across the country, and especially in big cities like Athens and Thessaloniki, the number of second-hand and vintage clothing stores has increased significantly. Even though there is no easily available data for the new shops that opened, it is obvious just by observation. And not only do these shops appeal to the younger generation, but they also appeal to the parents of young people, too.

The fast fashion industry is responsible for some of the most damaging environment practices: According to the UN, textile dyeing is the largest polluter of clean water globally, only second to agriculture. Polyester, which is the most popular fabric used in the fashion world, sheds microfibers when washed in domestic washing machines. These microfibers end up in the sea, are ingested by fish and sea creatures that are then fished for human consumption. In this way, the food chain is directly affected at all levels. But now, stores like Yesterday’ Bread, which sells only second-hand clothing, and the Kilo Shop, which sells clothes by the kilo, have become a staple in young Greeks’ lives.

Photos from the Zero Waste Festival. Courtesy of the organizers.

One final example of fashion done ethically in Greece is 3Quarters, a company repurposing old balcony awnings into unique products like bags and passport holders. Another admirable example is the work of the NGO NAOMI, who hired refugees and immigrants and taught them how to sew and create coats for men and women by the discarded blankets that were handed out in the refugee camp in Idomeni, in northern Greece. After thoroughly washing the 10.000 blankets distributed by UNHCR, the people working at NAOMI, created warm winter coats and jackets.

This curiosity that Greeks, and more specifically Athenians, have been showing for the zero waste movement has recently led to the first Zero Waste Music Festival in Athens, held in Bagkeion Hotel, one of the city’s most iconic buildings.

“We made sure that it was organized in such a way that no waste would be produced by the end of the day,” says Alexandra Kladi, a musician and one of the organizers of the festival. “All food and drinks were served in reusable glasses and plates, that the festival-goers returned after having used, and all the stands in the Zero Waste Market sold their products without packaging,” she continues.

According to Mrs. Kladi, Athenians are ready to embrace this way of living, which is also what made the festival so successful this year, and what will hopefully propel it into being a yearly festival.

Greeks have always incorporated small acts of zero waste living in their daily life, intentionally or not. Perhaps the best examples of this are the local markets, which sell products in bulk and with minimal packaging. Even in many old Greek movies, the famous reusable net bag for shopping is noticeable.

As meat and dairy companies are on track to be the world’s biggest contributors to climate change, outpacing even the fossil fuel industry, more and more people are turning to vegetarianism and veganism. Furthermore, thousands of people continue to use public transportation every day, despite its difficulties.

Most importantly, more and more people seem to be paying attention to their individual environmental footprint. “Seeing all the waste left behind by humans in beaches and forests, overconsumption and the failure of recycling in Greece, made me turn to a more zero waste kind of living, ”says Elias Tsiolis.

Zero Waste beginners Guide:

•assess your waste

•focus on eliminating single use items first

•use what you have

•buy second hand first

•learn how to make things yourself

•get involved with your community

•start composting

•properly recycle old items, reuse, donate, sell or upcycle them

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If you have any corrections, ideas, or even profanities to share, feel free to email us info@athenslive.gr


AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for stories from Athens and throughout Greece.

lidia bajraktari

Written by


AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for stories from Athens and throughout Greece.

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