For many of the Greek Diaspora, a trip to Greece is something to look forward to all year. It is like finally going home and seeing all the family members and places you have missed for so long. Summers would not be the same if they were not spent on a Greek island. Food tastes better and the air has some sort of magic in it that makes us feel like the best version of ourselves. But behind these fleeting feelings is something that is often overlooked and ignored. The trash pollution crisis that is polluting Greek beaches, cities, and green spaces is an ongoing problem that continues to get worse with little recognition of it, until now.
During the quarantine imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, one local Athenian decided to dedicate his time to tackle this exact problem. Vassilis Sfakianopoulos had seen the mounting piles of trash take over an incredible look-out spot near his home in the city center. From this spot you have a perfect view of Mount Lycabettos and the Acropolis, with the sea and the whole city behind them. But upon the hill right in your view was another hill, this one made of trash. He spoke to people who showed no concern about adding to the trash because they thought their contribution caused no harm since it was an existing mess. But when one million people feel that their trash is insignificant, that is one million piles of trash polluting our communities. This is when Vassilis gathered a group of friends and set out to clean up his beloved city, launching the movement `Save Your Hood', which has taken hold not just in Athens but all over Greece and is now moving into neighboring countries where other Greeks have picked up on it.
We spoke exclusively with Vassilis to understand more about the movement and what it means for the future of Environmental Protection in Greece.
The National Herald: The Save Your Hood movement started by recognizing the increasing trash pollution in Greece. Have you had concerns about this for long, and what was the final straw that made you take action?
Vassilis Sfakianopoulos: The situation in Greece, unfortunately, in terms of land and water pollution is particularly bad. Apart from the lack of any environmental education, there is a particular lack of respect for society and our neighborhoods, especially in urban centers. Combined with our overconsumption habits and now COVID-19, it worsened significantly. During the first quarantine, the problem intensified even more with the indifference of citizens. I was observing and experiencing it and looking inside myself for a way to improve the conditions. The final straw was while I was visiting a favorite view spot in my neighborhood, Turkovounia, Athens, when a young man threw a plastic coffee cup front of me.
This discussion followed:
VS: "My friend, sorry, why did you do that?"
Young man: "Do you have a problem?"
VS: “Of course! Why did you do that?"
Young man: “Well, do you see what is happening here? Will my cup make a difference?”
TNH: There has been an incredible reaction to the movement, gaining supporters from all over Greece and beyond. Were you prepared for this outpour of support?
VS: The unbelievable acceptance of such a movement from people like me is simply out of this world. Even now, the realization of what we are achieving has yet to come. I was not psychologically prepared for this kind of growth and reaction, but fortunately Save Your Hood has an organizational structure that could sustain that kind of growth. The amazing thing that I found out is that SYH is responding to a deep thirst of the Greek people to change things for the better while at the same time connecting people and groups that already were quite active all over Greece on a local level. It is giving them a nationally strong voice of unity that can influence people and society for the better. That voice is enhanced with the support of local municipalities (already over 17) solving the problem with them. Two things characterize to this movement. First, it started with the purest of intentions and forms and we are keeping it that way. Secondly, we are not acting against anyone, as we all created this problem. Only together can we solve problems of this size.
TNH: The fast popularity of the movement meant that you had been given a strong voice. How do you plan to communicate the message to your new audience and spread knowledge about the trash pollution crisis?
VS: The trash pollution crisis is here, it is real and we must inevitably unite in order to save ourselves and the planet. Many scientists are talking about 19 years in which we must change our habits, whilst WWF is talking about only 9 years. Our voice is national as well as our influence, and we are becoming global step by step. National cleanups are only the first step, as there is a limit to how much we can clean up Greece. We already have many municipalities that openly help and support us, thus giving us a way to positively influence the authorities.
The next steps are:
- SYH in education: We are currently expanding into education with special environmental interactive programs tailor-made to the situation in our country. Our communication starts from refugee camps where the environment is more fertile for our message.
- SYH changes mindsets: Through our actions and our campaigns, both digital and physical, and through strong installations we will influence people and organizations to follow the 3 R rules: reduce, reuse, recycle. Only following by all three of them do we stand a chance to make a positive impact on the planet.
TNH: Why do you think trash pollution has gotten so bad in Greece? And do you think that it will change?
VS: The lack of a proper environmental education combined with our overconsumption habits and the Greek's mindset of blaming the other created a disappointing mix that nature has to face. Combined with the crowds of people that rushed to nature because of the quarantine measures, leaving behind trails of garbage, the situation became much worse. Through our constant activities all over Greece, we raise environmental awareness while at the same time making cleanups a trend that brings shame to those who are polluting. Little by little and step by step, people, municipalities, organizations, and government will inevitably follow our example :)
TNH: What are the long term results that you are hoping to see as a result of this movement in terms of societal, cultural, and policy changes?
VS: We dream of developing an advanced environmental consciousness in every aspect of the world where our live become perfectly sustainable and in agreement with nature. Already spreading outside of Greece, our movement will not stop untill our voice becomes a worldwide act towards breaking our destructive overconsumption habits. As far as society is concerned, we wish to see people care for both the environment they are in, as well as their neighborhood. Culture-wise, we promote using the 3R principle: reduce, reuse, recycle. Only then we will stand a chance to repair our broken world. Policy-wise, the laws should change in order to serve our Earth and not our profits.
TNH: How can we as a community help combat trash pollution and ensure that it never reaches this point again?
VS: Reduce, reuse, recycle is the only way of both facing the existing trash as well as reducing the amount of the products that we buy/need. In order to do so, the majority of the citizens must follow or try to follow zero waste principles, pressuring companies to find alternatives for their own products without harmful effects on the planet.
TNH: What do you want to say to people in power and in government that have responsibility for keeping our communities clean? What changes do you expect from them?
VS: The absolute truth is that in reality we are all people. If people are environmentally untrained, then our governments are too. If I could say one thing, it is that the blame game is over and it is time for all of us, no matter who is responsible for the problem, to act sincerely, powerfully, united, and aligned. Our governments are welcome to take part in our efforts, and we in return will influence them towards the greatest of causes: our environment, our planet, our homes.
TNH: What is in store for the Save Your Hood movement? What else do you want to accomplish now that you have been given this platform?
- SYH in society, we are targeting to improve everything that `pollutes' our neighborhoods. Racism is hugely polluting our hoods and that's why through the involvement of local communities that hail from other countries, we will strengthen our message of unity and solidarity through our actions.
- SYH changes the way Greece recycles: As we are already making agreements to fully recycle the garbage collected in our major cities, combined with the appropriate ministries, a path opens to positively influence the way our government recycles.
- SYH makes our hoods greener. Our actions are expanding into making our neighborhoods greener through collaborations with the ministry of the Environment as well as local organizations that specialize in tree planting and landscape architecture.
- SYH works with the education and school system. The most important part of SYH is influencing youth and providing them with valuable information, practices, and making them capable of leading the planet to its best tomorrow.