Any archaeologist will tell you that rubbish is a great source of information. The more of it, the better. How else would we have a hope of understanding what makes societies tick if they didn’t leave the detritus of their daily lives lying about the place? We know from digging through our own landfills and battling the paparazzi and the identity thieves to go through household rubbish bins that we humans are unreliable witnesses of what we consume, and how much of it. Nothing speaks more directly than actual rubbish.
Unfortunately, what it is telling us at this precise time stinks.
As the result of a nationwide strike by municipal sanitation workers, the rubbish is piling up on the street corners across Greece.
As one newspaper report pointed out this is hardly the first time the bin men have summoned up their command of the smelly stuff to protest over their working conditions. Over the last forty years, they have taken this particularly potent form of industrial action over a dozen times (and this is not counting more frequent local protests and work stoppages which can last for months), the result of successive governments’ reluctance to address the chronic misallocation of resources in local government. Over the years, it had been common practice to keep the number of permanent local authority employees low and supplement them with seasonal contractors. The fixed-term contracts were then routinely converted to permanent positions as a way of bestowing political patronage. This latest strike was sparked by a ruling by Greece’s Court of Audit, which declared such contract conversions unconstitutional, contradicting ministerial assurances to the workers, who number 6,000 in total, that a healthy portion of them would be hired through the “traditional” channels.
The archaeologist of the future might conclude that there is something ritualistic about this periodic build-up of domestic waste within the urban space, this cyclical departure from the routine purification of the demos of its rubbish and its deposition outside the city walls. There is certainly some form of non-verbal communication evident in the accumulation of putrid piles of the stuff, a material call and response that never seems to reach resolution.
Given the time of year, it is not just the bad odour and the potential health hazards that are creating distress. As news crews station themselves by the most spectacular accumulations, we are also starting to hear the seasonal cry of “What will the tourists think?”
Well, the foreign media are always quick to seize on an exotic photo opportunity, especially when it can used to enliven a boilerplate “anti-austerity protest” story. But we now know that even celebrity visitors cruising by our remote beauty spots in their superyachts can’t get away from the rubbish. Unrelated to the strikes, Willow (alliterative offspring of Hollywood actor Will) Smith sent this holiday snap from the Ionian islands to the world on her Instagram.
Fortunately, other foreign visitors were less perturbed. The EU’s Environment Commissioner showed a gift for timing, paying a scheduled visit to the Athens just as the strike was coming to a head, with rubbish high on the agenda. Hosting him, the head of the regional authority of Attica dutifully recited the latest European statistics which show that Greece sends a disappointing 81% of its waste to landfill, compared to a European average of 31%. She could easily have added that Greece has racked up tens of millions of Euros in fines for breaking EU regulations on waste management over the years by allowing dozens of illegal landfills to continue operating, while only the financial crisis has had a serious impact on reducing the amount of waste sent to them – a reduction of up to a third according to one recent estimate.
According to the Greek state news agency, the Commissioner praised the the new waste management strategy designed to encourage recycling, leaving us to ponder whether to admire his steadfast focus on the big picture – or to question whether he ever left the airport.