Greek garbage becomes protest tool

AP News
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Posted: Oct 19, 2011 4:44 AM
Greek garbage becomes protest tool

All manner of workers are protesting in Greece these days, enraged by layers of state cutbacks required in exchange for international bailout money. But there are few gestures of defiance more potent, or pungent, than the mounds of rotting, moldering refuse that multiply like mushrooms around overflowing trash bins and containers.

A strike by garbage collectors has left refuse piling up in the capital, and the country's biggest landfill, on the edge of Athens, has become another flashpoint in the protest.

Greek garbage is an old political weapon. In 2003, in the runup to the Olympic Games the following year, the Athens mayor warned the city was "drowning" in trash because of a municipal strike. Exaggeration, to be sure. But many street corners today have been hijacked by small hills or mountains of bulging plastic bags, cardboard boxes, and other flotsam.

The unsavory spectacle unfolding on the streets of Athens and other municipalities is not as big as past rubbish crises in Naples, Italy, and does not harbor the same sinister allegations of industry links with organized crime. But it's hard to stomach, even in a country where a day without a protest is something special.

"People must have the right to strike, but not against the society," said Philippos Kirkitsos, head of the Ecological Recycling Society, a non-governmental group in Greece. "This strike must stop now. We can think of another way to say what we want."

More than two weeks into the collector walkout, however, there was no relief. The government ordered garbage workers to go back to work or face fines and even possible jail time. But in a sign of the growing disconnect between Greeks and their elected leaders, the trash remained an odorous eyesore late Tuesday.

A general strike was planned for Wednesday and Thursday ahead of a parliamentary vote on fresh cutbacks aimed at containing Greece's financial crisis, which threatens to spread to other shaky European economies. Garbage workers were likely to join the mass walkout.

The capital's main landfill at Ano Liosia, a community on the northwestern outskirts of Athens, resembled a national security site of sorts. Two police checkpoints, one outside the facility and another at a nearby intersection, monitored traffic as a precaution after garbage workers blocked trucks from entering and burned tires several days ago.

A policeman instructed an Associated Press reporter not to take photographs or video images of the landfill, a massive, dun-colored mound that rises above a barren, industrial area. A trickle of private garbage trucks entered the gates; on a strike-free day, the policeman said, trucks back up at the gates, waiting to deposit their loads.

A tattered, blue-and-white Greek flag flew inside the entrance, where riot police lounged in a bus with metal mesh on the windows. Protesters' graffiti adorned walls outside: "Either the thieves or us," and slogans comparing the ruling political party to a junta, echoing Greek memories of military rule in the 1960s and 1970s.

There was also, "Jefry, go home," an English-language taunt directed at Prime Minister George Papandreou, whose expatriate background has been a source of derision for demonstrators who view him as a stooge of foreign creditors. He was born in the United States and studied there and in Canada; as a youth, he was reportedly called Jeffrey.

As with many aspects of the Greek financial crisis, tensions over trash, and the reality on the ground, were fluid or confused. The government considered calling in soldiers to drive garbage trucks, but decided not to do so. Some trucks were picking up trash, mostly along main routes where demonstrations occur.

Police said a private truck, commissioned by the government to replace striking garbage collectors, was attacked and set on fire Monday by dozens of unidentified men in an Athens suburb. The driver escaped unharmed. Video footage showed white paint spattered on its windshield, and burn marks on and around the steering wheel in the driver's cabin.

Athens has more than 4 million people and produces between 6,000 and 7,000 tons of trash every day. Health experts warn of a risk of viruses, as well as respiratory and other infections, if rubbish accumulates unchecked.

"It depends on how many days it is going to be there," said Athanassios Tsakris, a professor of microbiology at the University of Athens who is affiliated with Greece's Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said waste can contaminate people directly, through dust, or through flies and other insects, and that the garbage can increase the risk of contracting hepatitis or West Nile virus, which can cause fever, nausea and diarrhea.

Humidity exacerbates the spread of bacteria, though fortunately the sweltering summer has given way to brisk daytime temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).

Greek experts say garbage problems loom far beyond the end of the strike, whenever it comes. According to 2009 figures, Greece recycles about 17 percent of its municipal waste, below the European Union average of 24 percent. It converted just 2 percent of its waste to compost, compared with an EU average of 18 percent.

Kirkitsos, the environmentalist, said the landfill at Ano Liosia should be shut in six or seven years as Greece, it is hoped, shifts more fully to a recycling culture that he claimed would be more cost-effective than incineration plants and other alternatives.

"We have many, many things to do in the future," he said. And he was just talking about garbage.