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Michael Mosley’s death on Symi: The story of its remarkable sister island

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun16,2024
It’s not easy to get to Tilos, a tiny Greek island without an airport that’s so far from Athens that phone networks think you’re in Türkiye. But when tourists finally reach this sleepy and traditional place by sea, it’s immediately obvious they’re also experiencing the future.
On this barren, mountainous island of 500 inhabitants, there are no large bins on the streets, no landfills, nothing is buried or incinerated, and there are no plastic bags in shops. In hotel rooms, leaflets ask visitors to divide their waste into separate tubs.
In 2021, Tilos claimed to be the first zero-waste island on earth.

In reality, there are other places that claim similar titles, including Apo Island in the Philippines and the Danish island of Bornholm.

The labels are hard to quantify, mainly because zero waste can mean different things in different places and there’s no controlling body.

For Tilos, going zero waste is not its only accolade. The 64 sq km island has pioneered a hybrid system for the storage and production of energy exclusively from renewables, and it represented Greece in Paris at COP21. Furthermore, it has banned hunting, provides ocean access for people with disability, and hosted its first gay marriage 14 years ago.

‘Nothing in excess’

The circular waste management program, known as Just Go Zero Tilos, draws inspiration from the ancient Greek motto “nothing in excess” and is about sorting waste streams to recycle as a first step, and then reducing, reusing, composting and upcycling.
It kicked off in December 2021 to give hotels and restaurants time to practice the processes before summer tourists descended.
Maria Christofi and her family run the island’s largest hotel, Ilidi Rock, with 50 rooms overlooking the Aegean Sea. The hotel’s path to zero waste has been bigger than most on the island but once staff learned the new processes, it was simple.

“After the first days and with very organised instructions, it became very easy for us,” Ms Christofi told SBS News. “We just inform our clients when they check in where they must put what in the different buckets that they have in their rooms and it works perfectly.”

A woman in a white t-shirt wearing sunglasses taking a selfie. There's water and a cliff in the background.

Maria says she’s proud to live in one of the world’s most progressive places, even if most people have never heard of Tilos. Source: Supplied

She says she’s proud to live in one of the world’s most progressive places, even if most people have never heard of Tilos.

“Tilos is a small, unspoilt Greek island that has achieved big things. Plus you have the fabulous beaches all around the island and the 60km of well-preserved walking paths where you can walk under the sound of birds and smell the herbs.”
Kyveli Gourgouri, assistant project manager at Polygreen, which manages Just Go Zero, told SBS News the biggest challenges were not the processes themselves but gaining the trust of locals and organisations and shifting ingrained habits.
“We had to prove that our only goal was creating a circular economy, that nothing is wasted. Changing the mentality of over a century on waste disposal has never been easy and is an ongoing effort.”

But the team has persisted, “through education, positive approach and team spirit”.

Clean waste streams

The program centres on huge blue cloth bags with separate compartments for different waste streams, which are delivered to every home and business on Tilos. The bags are collected three times per week, more in summer months, and each contains a unique QR code that allows residents to track the amount of waste they recycle.
In addition, people are given biodegradable bags for organics, and containers for non-recyclables such as cigarette butts and nappies as well as bags for electrical items (made from banners and posters from Athens), cotton shopping bags, hand dryers to reduce paper consumption and food waste dryers for people to make their own fertiliser.

The collected waste goes to the Circular Innovation Centre, which replaced the island’s landfill site, where it’s sorted into 25 different streams. Any bio-waste stays on the island and is turned into fertiliser (the island has a thriving olive industry) while the rest goes to Athens, where it’s sorted into more streams.

Two women sitting at a table in a small room.

The circular waste management program involves sorting waste streams to recycle as a first step, and then reducing, reusing, composting and upcycling. Source: Supplied

“Nothing goes to landfill or is incinerated,” Ms Gourgouri said.

Tilos now boasts average recycling rates of 86 per cent, which reached 92 per cent in July — no mean feat in the peak tourist season.

“The entire island has embraced the new method of separating and collecting trash with astounding success,” she added.

Australia too ‘lucky, blind and cavalier’

Australia’s record when it comes to recycling and creating a circular economy pales in comparison.
Around 2.44 million of the 4.9 million tonnes of materials sent to landfill each year are either recyclable or compostable, according to environmental organisation Planet Ark. And only up to 18 per cent of the material in council-provided waste bins is recyclable, while just over half could be composted.

Plastic is the prime concern, with Australians using 3.5 million tonnes of it in the 2018-2019 financial year with a recycling rate of just 13 per cent, Planet Ark says.

Zero Waste Australia works to improve what it describes as our unsustainable waste management sytems and low recycling rates.
The organisation’s Jane Bremmer told SBS News: “Australia has got some very embarrassing statistics. We are big consumers of plastic and big generators of plastic waste.”

“We also don’t have a very sophisticated waste management system and so we use resources well beyond our ecological footprints. Australia has a lot of room for improvement.”

Australia has such a wealth of resources and we’ve never faced the kind of restrictions that a Greek island or landlocked European country has had to face.

Jane Bremmer, Zero Waste Australia

She puts this down to our “blind lifestyle”.
“Australia has such a wealth of resources and we’ve never faced the kind of restrictions that a Greek island or landlocked European country has had to face. We’ve been too lucky, too cavalier.”
Ms Bremmer said was impressed by the model in Tilos because waste is being removed from the island for sorting and is not being incinerated, a process that creates hazardous ash and releases toxic emissions into the air and ocean.
She also praised the island’s dedication to separating waste into many different streams that don’t contaminate each other, which makes them easier to recycle.
“What this island appears to be doing really well is investing in how they collect, sort and manage their waste into the cleanest waste streams that they can produce.

“That’s the goal of zero waste.”

Governments to take responsibility

The problem with Australia, Ms Bremmer says, is it sees the circular economy as “a potential business venture” rather than as a way to eliminate waste.
“We’re embedded in a fossil fuel economy and extractivism, and our material production systems are flooded with petrochemicals.”

Recycling and downcycling plastic isn’t the answer, she says, because plastic can’t be recycled continuously, the process still requires raw materials extraction and ultimately, it’s still expanding the plastics industry.

Plastic-free Wollongong hopes to rid the local beaches of this type of single-use plastic.

Sustainability advocates say we should be reducing the amount of unnecessary plastic packaging being made in the first place rather than focusing solely on recycling soft plastics. Source: SBS News / SBS News

“Instead, we have to cap plastic production, detoxify those systems so they don’t produce waste, and recycle as much as we can,” she said.

The onus is on governments, she added.
“Global corporations that drive plastic packaging won’t stop producing plastic voluntarily, so they need to be pushed by governments to redesign their products.”
doesn’t exactly build consumer confidence in Australia’s recycling schemes, but there is change afoot.
The Recycling Modernisation Fund, with funding from the federal government, states and industry, will invest $1 billion in recycling infrastructure to expand Australia’s capacity to sort, process and remanufacture glass, plastic, tyres, paper and cardboard.

And in November, Australia joined a coalition of 20 countries hoping to end plastic pollution by 2040, with binding targets to phase out plastic waste products by 2025.

More life, less stuff

Despite the need for systems to change, Ms Bremmer said there is plenty Australians themselves can do to recycle more.
“At Zero Waste Australia, we say ‘more life, less stuff'”.
Ms Bremmer suggests following the lead of Tilos and separating waste streams as much as possible.

This means keep all bio-waste, paper, cardboard, hard plastics, glass and metals separate — and store your soft plastics too; there will come a time when it, too, can be recycled.

It’s also important to ensure your recyclable bin meets your local government’s guidelines and that you’re only recycling what’s recyclable for your locality, you’re not mixing things up, and the bins are not contaminated with food, liquid or broken glass.
But if your locality isn’t doing enough, find a local recycling centre, she adds.
“As long as we keep providing mixed waste bins, that’s all going to go to landfill or incineration.

“Source separation is key to generating clean waste streams, so we can create a truly circular economy.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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