Despite the fact that the circular economy trend is gaining momentum on a global scale, the creation of a Zero Waste City seems at least surreal in a country like Greece, which lacks important infrastructure and environmental education. However, Thessaloniki intends to set a good example over a three-year horizon through a new initiative, by radically changing its citizens’ attitude towards waste management.
This is a private initiative that is part of the Coca-Cola Group’s multi-faceted corporate responsibility programme, which employs the assistance offered by the Municipality of Thessaloniki and the Ecological Recycling Company to minimize or even eliminate the amount of waste that contaminates the different life cycles of Greece’s “co-capital”. This important “trash action” consists of three main blocks of activities. The first block includes the intervention projects in the Municipality; the second block is the education and awareness of the new generation on matters related to the environment and the circular economy, while the third block concerns the change in the citizens’ behaviour.
Zero Waste and great expectations
If anything, the Zero Waste programme for Thessaloniki put forward by Coca — Cola is ambitious. However, in a report published in September 2018, the European Commission ranked Greece among 14 European countries that are impossible to have achieved the 50% recycling target — let alone 100% — of its urban waste by 2020.
The European Union directives are quite technical, but not without particular interest, as they require that member states impose sanctions on the municipalities that do not achieve the objectives, take measures for the gradual landfill reduction and the immediate separation of bio-waste, and stipulate that each country should determine the minimum level of service that each municipality has to offer.
The particular case of Thessaloniki
In the recent years, the co-capital has particular properties as regards waste management. “In Greece, in general, we are still far behind when it comes to waste disposal, while Thessaloniki was at zero recycling levels a few years ago. However, we managed to become the first Greek city in recycling rates last year”, says the Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, without hiding his pride. He adds: “We recycle about 20% of 250,000 tonnes of waste per year”, stating, however, that even this rate is not enough. Thessaloniki produces 9% of the municipal waste generally generated in Greece. However, significant efforts have been made to improve the infrastructure in the last years.
The Vice-Governor of the Thessaloniki metropolitan area, Voula Patoulidou, states: “We are the first Region that created the Solid Waste Management Facility, which has managed to deal effectively with waste disposal at local and regional level. At the same time, we have approved and implemented the Regional Planning for Waste Management. Moreover, we are promoting citizens’ information and awareness campaigns on waste management and recycling in cooperation with the municipalities”. In addition, she points out that €90 million has been allocated to projects and infrastructure related to waste management through the corresponding NSRF Operational Programme. “The new projects will include bio-waste management actions, home composting structures, separate collection networks and bio-waste composting, as well as new projects for the creation and networking of Green Points”, concludes the Vice-Governor.
At the other extreme, the rest of Greece, despite the fact that it generates collectively less waste than the European average -perhaps because of its size- continues to be Europe’s “bad student” in terms of recycling and waste disposal.
Red bottles, “green” consciousness
The Zero Waste Cities programme is essentially a road charter for actions and interventions in waste management in Thessaloniki through a comprehensive prevention plan. The recycling initiative (paper, glass, aluminum and plastic) throughout the coastline is also a major intervention.
In addition, according to Coca-Cola, the inhabitants of Thessaloniki will have the opportunity to be informed about the recycling and the circular economy in a “model interactive recycling and information center”. A training programme on recycling is expected in 2019–2020, an action covered by the creation of the first Zero Waste School and University. Finally, the “Print Your City” action actively demonstrates the applications of recycled materials.
Garbage as… urban equipment
The grid of actions implemented by Coca-Cola Group is complemented by the Print Your City programme, which remodels the co-capital’s urban miniature and gives the citizens of Thessaloniki the opportunity to participate in the environmental change that takes place in their city. This is a particularly interesting environmental action, in which urban furniture (e.g. seats — benches) is manufactured using a 3D printer. The raw material used for the construction of urban equipment is recycled plastic.
This is how the Print Your City design team, called The New Raw, invites the residents of Thessaloniki, through an electronic platform, to choose furniture that meets their needs and place it wherever in the city they want. In the official presentation of the program during the TIF, Coca-Cola Corporate Affairs & Communications Director, Sissy Iliopoulou, commented that “the Print your City initiative enables the citizens to transform plastic waste into useful items for Thessaloniki themselves”.
Thessaloniki that is persuaded and Thessaloniki that is protesting
At the moment, Coca — Cola’s corporate responsibility programme seems to have made a good impression to the residents of Thessaloniki. In particular, the urban seats that have been placed at Nea Paralia (New Beach) bring great excitement to the city, and many residents of Thessaloniki feel as if they are sitting “in their house’s living room, but having a … panoramic view”.
Moreover, the Mayor of Thessaloniki, from the very first moment, strongly supported the Zero Waste prospect presented by the multinational company. In particular, Mr. Boutaris reiterated his intention to increase taxes on offenders: “Of course, we will increase taxes for those who do not observe the environmental regulations”, he says. At the same time, the Mayor of Thessaloniki firmly supports that “corporate responsibility actions strike a balance between business profits and the benefit of society. Businesses give money back to consumers through these actions. Of course not through taxes, because no one knows where the money from taxes goes. This way, the consumer knows that part of their money is channeled into programmes like Zero Waste for waste management”.
However, this is not a view shared by everyone in Thessaloniki. The members of the Panhellenic Union of Bottled Drinks Workers (POEEP), who protest against Coca-Cola due to the “shut down” of its industrial plant in Thessaloniki, believe that the Zero Waste programme is another attempt of the Group to “green wash” and cover up its absence from the city.
It is certainly not easy for Coca-Cola in Thessaloniki. In 2012, at the height of the greek economic crisis, the beverage giant moved it’s local production to Bulgaria and as a result hundreds of Greeks lost their jobs. In protest, they called for a boycott against Coca-Cola and it’s products while taking their case at court. As slow as ever, the greek justice system has yet to reach a clear verdict on the subject and so the boycott rages on. “We will not stop until Coca-Cola opens another factory in Thessaloniki” says Giannis Fragidis, vice-chairman of POEEP, who also accuses Coca-Cola for hypocrecy: “It is true that this Zero Waste programme may serve the environment, but to be honest Coca-Cola does it in Thessaloniki just to improve its image”.
However, beyond this long-term conflict, there is no strong reaction to the waste reduction programme.
Local efforts for green growth
Coca-Cola is not the only one to implement actions with a zero-waste vision for Thessaloniki. Since 2014, the Regional Association of Solid Waste Management Bodies (FoDSA) of Central Macedonia has been a local government tool for the optimal waste management in the 38 Central Macedonia Municipalities, including Thessaloniki.
This organization constitutes a substantial intervention to increase the social benefits and local development of the region, as it is trying to implement the Zero Waste vision based on international experience, innovation, utilization of modern technologies, eco-design and industrial symbiosis.
As part of the awareness and prevention actions, FoDSA provides environmental information to schools, and more than 100,000 students, professors and teachers of all educational levels have participated in the programme so far. Information is provided by a team of FoDSA trainee collaborators. “For young children we have cartoons and illustrated books that we present at the schools in the area; for teenagers we organise seminars with audiovisual material and we distribute brochures”, says Elina Mouratidou, head of the Central Macedonia FoDSA President office, who also comments that “the more environmental voices are heard in the region the better”.
*The article was originaly published in Greek within the framework of “Dialoggers 2018”, an investigative journalism workshop organized by
Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. It was then republished in Reporter magazine and was available to the public through “PROTO THEMA”, the highest circulated newspaper in Greece.