By Yannis Kallianos
infra-demos, Postdoc Researcher
In June 2018, thousands of tonnes of garbage were left uncollected in the city of Athens and across the surrounding region of Attica. This waste crisis lasted well over a week from June 9th until June 21st. It was the result of the temporary shut down of Fyli landfill, the only legal waste management facility in the region. According to the governing authorities, the landfill had to shut down due to a major crack created by a series of storms that had swept through the region during that period.
The general secretary of Attica’s waste management authorities (EDSNA) explained that an initial ground subsidence, a ‘frequent phenomenon when it comes to landfills’ according to him, had later developed into a major crack because of the heavy rainfall. This is not the first time that heavy rain has been blamed for such destabilizations. Similar incidents occurred in March 2003 as well as in February 2019, and both resulted in the temporary closure of the landfill.
In their announcement about the June 2018 crack, waste management authorities portrayed this interruption of normal waste flows as a technical issue that only concerned the experts. Specialized terminology has been purposefully used on many occasions by authorities as a way of classifying the management of waste as a technical issue, thereby eliding the social and political dimensions which are inherent in this process. According to collectives who are active in environmental struggles in the area, and who advocate for the closure of the landfill in Fyli, the actual reason for the cause of cracks and destabilizations has little to do with weather conditions, but instead with the fact that the landfill has reached – and in fact far exceeded – its capacity. Thus waste processing in the available designated areas cannot be properly executed due to limited space, and garbage is being deposited in cells that have already been filled. To accommodate the everyday needs of the capital and sustain the uninterrupted transfer of waste to the landfill, current waste management processes are increasing the risk of destabilization. At issue are the ways in which the long term effects of uneven infrastructural development and environmental injustice play out within the context of governance and contestation in the current period of crisis.
Fyli landfill, which is situated at the urban margins of modern Athens, has been used as a dumping site since the 1960s. Since 1991, when Schisto landfill ceased operation, it has been the only active landfill in the Attica region. While it has gone through a series of institutional and technological transformations in order to comply with various EU directives, in reality it is an assemblage of inactive waste dumps, active landfill disposal areas and privatized facilities which operate under concession contracts, all of which are situated only 500 metres away from local residences (see fig 1).
This massive landfill has redefined the socio-economic and environmental conditions of the wider area and has shaped the political economy of waste flows and disposal in Attica. The Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament (2014: 16), which made an official visit to the site in September 2013, noted that the ‘degradation of the environment in Fyli will be a monument of environmental mayhem, sickness and human suffering at least for the next three generations living in the area unless something more fundamental is done to restore the area’. Moreover, since the early 1990s, the municipality of Fyli has been receiving the so called αντισταθμιστικά οφέλη, annual offsets provided in order to compensate for the landfill’s environmental effects. Local collectives, however, claim that such environmental counter measures have never actually been implemented.
Since there is currently no other legal facility in Attica that could accommodate the region’s garbage, the Fyli landfill continues to operate, and in doing so, generates a series of either short-term or long-term interruptions and crises. We need to examine these crises within the context of both long-term infrastructural and socio-political conditions, and the planning that generates them. In this context particular attention has to be paid to the interrelationship between infrastructure (in)visibility (Star 1999), interruption and normality. While for the majority of the population in Attica and Athens, these infrastructure processes become visible only when the garbage disposal system is temporarily interrupted, for the local population who live near the site the effects of this unjust infrastructural development are experienced daily.
Such waste crises should not be considered extraordinary. To the contrary, they have become more common over the past few years. While in Attica such interruptions are temporary, in other parts of Greece, waste crises have acquired a more permanent status. In many places there have been periods during which garbage was not collected because there was no legal facility in which it could be processed. In most cases, such events occurred because local open dumps, which had been operating illegally, were forced to close down under threat of immense fines by the EU.
Pyrgos, a city in the western Peloponnese, was faced with this kind of continuous interruption of garbage collection on several occasions between 2009 and 2015. To deal with the situation, the authorities started using a waste wrapping machine which produces garbage bales. Although the purpose of these machines is to facilitate the temporary storage of garbage, since 2009, the authorities have accumulated almost 100.000 tonnes of garbage in a site located near Alfeios river (see fig 2).
The accumulation of such vast amounts of garbage, for such a long period of time, has had devastating effects on the local environment, as well as constituting a serious fire hazard for the entire area (see fig 3).
The long-term characteristics of these events reflect a particular type of crisis which does not emerge instantly but rather grows gradually into a permanent situation. This process occurs through the normalization of an infrastructure regime that is organized around an uneven infrastructural development (Dalakoglou and Kallianos 2018).
Over the past years, a variety of local community groups and initiatives have started organising around the management of waste. Mobilised by both waste crises and the long-term processes of environmental pollution and urban fragmentation, they have begun to demand transparency around the various official systems of waste disposal and to advocate for public, decentralized infrastructures. While, they have developed within different contexts and have taken on diverse forms, they share common ground in practices which challenge the dominant infrastructural paradigm. A recent example is the March 17th 2019 protest in Volos, a city in central Greece, during which thousands demonstrated against the waste incineration taking place at the AGET-Lafarge cement factory. These political mobilizations constitute part of a broader process of infrastructural contestation that challenges established arrangements around infrastructures and their governance. As such, they indicate that infrastructures are re-emerging as important sites of wider socio-political and environmental struggles in Greece.
Committee on Petitions (2014) on Fact Finding Mission to Greece from18 to 20 September 2013, concerning waste management in Attica, Peloponnese, Thesprotia and Corfu.
Dalakoglou, D. and Kallianos, Y. (2018) ‘Eating mountains’ and ‘eating each other’: Disjunctive modernization, infrastructural imaginaries and crisis in Greece. Political Geography, 67, 76-87.
Star, S. L. (1999) The ethnography of infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 377–391.