By Evan C. Lambrou –
Special to The National Herald
NEW YORK – Everyone knows Greece is in a terrible financial bind. Economists predict a protracted recession for at least the next 5-10 years. But with an overall unemployment rate still hovering around 27-28 percent, Greece is actually experiencing a depression-level economy, not just a recession.
Even so, not all the news coming out of Greece is bleak. There are actually some bright spots in the Greek economy which, over time, could help enhance Greece’s long-term economic recovery.
One of those bright spots happens to be in solid waste management. With 12 large regional landfills in the works – four of which have already begun construction – Greece should start seeing a jobs increase in its waste management industry over the next decade.
This will add jobs to Greece’s sluggish economy and thereby help reduce domestic unemployment, while also alleviating a fairly serious environmental problem at the same time, according to Anestis Avramidis, a geotechnical engineer and founding partner with Geopraxis G.P., a consulting firm for major public works projects based in the Athens neighborhood of Nea Halkidona in Attica.
Avramidis earned his master’s degree from the University of Illinois in Chicago and his doctorate from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He also worked for the former Chambers Development Inc., a solid waste disposal company once owned and operated by retired Greek American industrialist John G. Rangos Sr., which merged with USA Waste in 1995 (USA Waste then merged with Waste Management in 1998).
In its heyday, Chambers owned and operated 13 large regional landfills all across the Eastern Seaboard, and Rangos’ ingenuity led to the development of impervious composite liners for landfills which are now the industry standard. Those landfills are still in operation today, and still provide millions in collected fees to the municipal governments of their respective localities, easing increasing property tax rates.
The link between Dr. Avramidis and Chambers is relevant because Chambers developed a specific plan to help Greece address its unique solid waste problem back in the early 1990’s. In a collaborative effort with Chambers’ management office in Pittsburgh, Avramidis presented the plan, on which Rangos himself directed that millions be spent as a gift to Greece (for the Greek Government’s consideration in 1992).
Rangos had previously spoken directly with then-Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis about Greece’s solid waste problem.
“I told the prime minister that Greece is the most beautiful country in Europe, and that it was just a crying shame to let pollution denigrate that beauty. He told me Greece was having a hard time finding a solution to that problem, so I offered my company’s services to help provide the Greek Government with a plan to address Greece’s environmental problems,” Rangos told TNH.
“We did that pro bono,” he said, noting that the governor of Macedonia had also paid a visit to Charles City, Virginia back then in order to observe Chambers operations at the regional landfill there.
“I just wanted to help Greece. We had 30 engineers working on that plan. I gave the Prime Minister a copy of that plan personally. Kyriakos Kokkinos, an attorney for the Supreme Court of Greece, was also with us at the time. They were amazed by the depth of our approach. They didn’t get a chance to fully implement the plan, but some of our suggestions saved Greece many millions in Piraeus and Crete. East Germany was also very impressed with our plan,” Rangos added.
Dr. Avramidis was not present when Rangos met with Mitsotakis, but he emphasized that the Chambers plan was a “great milestone” for Greece, but it ended up being shelved a few months later because the Mitsotakis-led Greek Government was forced into premature elections in 1993, and was unable to prevail that year.
That was unfortunate, Dr. Avramidis explained, because the Chambers plan would have “effectively and efficiently” helped Greece deal with its solid waste issues.
But Dr. Avramidis’ experience with Chambers ultimately helped him form his own company, and the Greek Government now consults him regularly on large public works projects throughout Greece – not only for solid waste disposal, but also for buildings, road construction and port facilities.
“My background is in geotechnical engineering, and I provide services to both the public and private sector for environmental projects because there continues to be a need for experts in my field,” he said.
“When I first came back to Greece in 1990, I worked for Chambers Development in a specific capacity. After Chambers completed its work and left Greece in 1992, I realized from a geotechnical perspective that there was more work to be done not only for solid waste disposal, but also for environmental management in other aspects,” he added.
Because of his distinct qualifications and position, Dr. Avramidis is able to act as a reliable go-between, facilitating agreements between the national (or regional) government and private contractors, as well as banks that end up providing financing, for various public works projects when those projects are put out for bid.
THE GREEK PROJECT
Dr. Avramidis was hired to handle Chambers’ “Greek Project.” He served as Chambers’ technical representative in Athens, and advised Chambers on the technical issues involved with solving Greece’s solid waste problem. He helped Chambers engineers develop the plan, and ultimately presented that plan to Greece’s Interior Ministry.
“I was hired by Rangos to represent his firm in Greece for technical issues in order to help assess site development and business opportunities in Greece, as it pertained to an integrated management solution to collect, recycle and dispose of solid wastes in Greece,” he said.
“We developed a plan for the entire country. But because the Mitsotakis government lost the 1993 election, no one acted on Chambers’ suggestions to fully address and remedy Greece’s solid waste issues at that time. It really was an excellent plan. Unfortunately, nothing materialized because the government changed, and the new government had undertaken other priorities,” he said.
Since faces changed – and since different people started running the Greek Government and its ministries – many plans under the party of the previous government would have been shelved, he added.
The Chambers plan nonetheless planted a seed, which is now starting to germinate 22 years later. And now that Greece is a member of the European Union, the problem is being addressed more concretely.
“When we started examining this issue back in the early 1990’s, every village in Greece had its own little dumpsite. But today we have the European Union, and there are rules and regulations under the E.U. that require all of its member states to collect and transport solid wastes to large regional landfills, which is exactly the same concept Chambers Development introduced to America decades earlier, and the same idea Chambers brought to Greece and other European countries (e.g., Italy) after that,” Dr. Avramidis said.
Although he would not take any personal credit for recent waste management advances in Greece, Dr. Avramidis has made his expertise available to both public and private sectors in Greece, and he has continued to present and promote the ideas he pitched to Greece back then, thereby generating greater awareness of the need for proper solid waste disposal, as well as for other public works issues.
One of the main considerations for solid waste management is to build safe access roads for proper transport and management of waste materials, he said, and to make sure that disposal sites are sound, so that the environment is not adversely affected.
Greece is clearly more aware of the issue now, he said, and is actually trying to do something about it. There is also an implicit connection between the Chambers Development plan, and how the problem needs to be addressed.
“Greece has made considerable progress since that time. What we tried to do with Chambers then is now moving in the right direction. Every village had its own dumpsite, and Chambers came to Greece to propose regional solutions with large regional landfills which would, altogether, help solve the problem at the national level. This was the idea we presented to the Mitsotakis government 22 years ago,” he said.
“A lot of time was lost in dealing with this problem since then. It wasn’t until 3-4 years ago, when the European Union stressed the need for dealing with solid waste disposal on a regional level, that we started to see some real movement. But it has inevitably become more widely known – not only in Greece, but also throughout Europe – that there needs to be cooperation between the public and private sectors to address this issue properly, which was always the Chambers model,” he added.
Public-private cooperation was definitely a hallmark of the Chambers approach.
In the United States, federal, state and municipal, governments provide funding for major public works projects, and put those projects out to bid to contractors in the private sector. Once built, a private company can operate a landfill under contract with its host government, charging collection fees and redistributing a percentage of those fees back to the local government.
The regional landfills in Charles City and Okeechobee, Florida – both of which were built by Chambers – are splendid examples of successful public/private cooperation. All landfills engineered by Chambers are still in operation today, in fact. They were built with a capacity large enough to operate for 30 years or more, and they were designed with special clay and/or synthetic liners to prevent harmful chemicals from leaching into groundwater supplies, as well as to minimize odor in their vicinities. They also provide municipal governments in their respective localities with additional revenue, thereby helping to keep property tax rates from increasing too dramatically.
In Greece, similar arrangements are typically made by what is known as “concession.” The national and regional governments allow a private firm with the necessary resources to proceed with a project. The company builds it, and then operates it for a certain period of time afterwards – often for 20-30 years – and the company keeps whatever income is generated from the project during that period (e.g., highway tolls, the rates of which are set by the government). Once the contract expires, the government assumes control.
Of the above-mentioned 12 regional landfills, whereby regional governments are slated to operate in tandem with the private sector under concession agreements, contracts have recently been signed for four, which are now ready to undergo construction. One is in Western Macedonia; one is in the Peloponnese; one is in Ilia; and one is in Serres.
Greece’s regional governments are receiving funds from the national government for their regional needs, Dr. Avramidis said, “and not only from the national government of Greece, but also from the European Union,” which distributes billions in funds earmarked for specific projects under the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF, a.k.a., “ESPA” in Greece).
It’s a win-win.
“First, it helps solve a huge problem. Solid waste management is a major issue in Greece. Second, it will provide jobs for construction and operation of infrastructure and facilities that will address this problem. Once a landfill is in operation, it collects fees, which then allow the landfill to pump money back into the system,” he said.
But what makes the problem so challenging in Greece? “The only active landfill in all of Attica is in Fyli. I mentioned 12 landfills to begin construction under concession, and four of the 12 contracts have been signed. Of the eight that remain unsigned, three are in Attica. But they are in the process of evaluation,” he said, adding that Greece’s current economic circumstances continue to present obstacles.
“The other side of this problem has to do with actual waste management. Quite often, people go on strike because they want more money from the government, which doesn’t have enough money right now, so we end up with big piles of garbage that don’t get properly disposed,” Dr. Avramidis said.
But by taking the approach championed by Chambers 22 years ago, he said, the problems starts to be solved, or at least mitigated. And the E.U. has ordered that all smaller dumpsites must be properly closed, and for the contents to be re-transported to larger regional landfills.
Asked whether existing regional landfills in Greece have proper environmental safeguards in place, Dr. Avramidis said existing landfills in Fyli and some other regions are properly engineered and controlled.
“It’s going to take many years before solid waste management in Greece is more thoroughly resolved and brought more fully under proper environmental control to meet the European Union’s official environmental standards, but the process has started, and Greece is trying to be a responsible 21st Century partner in the modern E.U.,” he added.
For his part, Rangos told the Herald he can now look back on his efforts to help Greece two decades ago with satisfaction: “I’m very glad to know that Greece is finally turning the corner from an environmental standpoint. Once that happens, the Greek economy will begin to improve. Environment and economy; the two go hand-in-hand, as does public-private cooperation. It’s all very synergistic. We proved that in America over 40 years ago. There’s no reason it can’t happen in Greece also, as long as people understand the synergy. And if Greece has high-quality people like Anestis working on these issues, Greece will get there,” he said.