Environment

This tiny Greek island now has zero waste – leading the way for the rest of the world

On Tilos, there's no landfill site at all. So how have they done it, and how can this zero-waste model be replicated around the world?

View from the mountain of Livadia, Tilos island

View from the mountain of Livadia, Tilos island. Image: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Located about 90km east of Rhodes lies the world’s first zero-waste island. Picturesque Tilos boasts white sandy beaches, scenic rolling hills, historic architecture and no bins.

In the 1980s, the island of around 800 people voted to become a conservation zone for wildlife. By 2018, they generated all their energy via renewables. This summer, Tilos was certified as Greece’s first zero-waste community.

The most modern measures have been implemented to solve an age-old problem. Specially designed and trademarked blue bags have a QR code that measures volume and content. A nifty ‘Just Go Zero’ app allows every household to monitor and track the circular management of waste materials as they are recycled.

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Only a few years ago, 87% of waste was being sent to landfill; now the island doesn’t have one. The old landfill site is now home to the Centre for Circular Innovation where rubbish is sorted, the organic waste converted to fertiliser. There’s also a Centre for Creative Upcycling for furniture or clothes no longer needed.

If successful, the island could serve as a zero-waste blueprint for the rest of the world to follow. That’s certainly the intention of environmental company Polygreen, who have pushed forward the initiative and hope to bring it next to the fossil fuel-enriched United Arab Emirates.

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Founded in 2018 by Greek-Cypriot Athanasios Polychronopoulos, Polygreen already operates across several continents and specialise in treating oil spills and hazardous waste management.

Polychronopoulos has “a mission to make Abu Dhabi the first zero-waste Emirate”. And by 2030 too. The petrostate is already home to a zero-carbon city, Masdar City, located within Abu Dhabi, with features such as wind towers, solar power plants and magnetically controlled cars. During its construction, the city welcomed numerous international dignitaries such as Hillary Clinton, George W Bush, and the then UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

While the scheme has been a success on a small island with a population of less than 1,000 – much less outside of holiday season – can the success transfer over to a region of almost three million? Not to mention that the UAE will need a significant amount of carbon offsetting to make up for its oil and gas industry.

This month, COP28 kicks off along the road from Abu Dhabi, in Dubai. It has already proved controversial, led by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the United Arab Emirates’ state oil company – though if he did happen to be serious about saving the planet, he’ll certainly know all the ways we’re going wrong at the moment.

But is it realistic or just a try for some positive PR for an oil-rich nation that relies on constant air conditioning and private car ownership to go zero waste?

Last year Abu Dhabi launched its Mission to Zero initiative, with the catchy tagline: “No excuse for single-use!” Plastic bags have already been banned, with the aim to do the same with plastic bottles. From individuals to shops, restaurants and government departments, there’s a toolkit to show people how they can make a difference. But the mission does seem almost impossible.

Meanwhile, in the UK with less than half of our waste recycled we definitely have lessons to learn from Tilos.

Melanie Goldberg is part of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme

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