Environment: Imbalance in the Trash Trade

Only the scavenging seagulls love Ano Liossia. By some reckoning, the mountainous heap of unsorted trash in the Athens suburbs ranks as Europe's largest rubbish dump, covering some 101 hectares. It's toxic, smelly, bug infested and, quite literally, overflowing. Not for the first time, tourists find a rich whiff of more than just history in the shadow of the Acropolis. In Greece, garbage is as much a feature of the landscape as olive groves and ruins.

The travails of Ano Liossia have lately been headlined across Europe as the worst of a widely shared problem. But it doesn't have to be this way. Just head north to ecosensitive Germany, where the ethos of dutiful citizenship extends to one's rubbish. There, dumping in the Grecian manner has been outlawed. Most landfill sites have been shut; those that remain accept only the trickiest materials that defy recycling. And through a mastery of modern alchemy, big business is turning trash into treasure. Raw waste is now powering a €50 billion trash industry that's one of the fastest-growing sectors of the German economy. Hard to believe? Visit a state-of-the-art plant outside Berlin, where an army of robotized sorters and optic sensors sift through 100,000 tons of junk that Berlin's 3.5 million inhabitants dispose of annually. The few leftovers are pressed into pellets—for use as an industrial-energy source.

One continent, two garbage cultures. Despite the efforts of the European Union to standardize recycling, habits vary by latitude and outlook—giving rise to predictable north-versus-south cultural clichés. Super-efficient Germans, Danes and Belgians recycle or incinerate more than 80 percent of their household trash. Southerners dump most of it in (or on) the ground. Sighs Athens' Environment Minister George Souflias: "Citizens must acquire an environmental conscience, but it's been difficult, initially, to teach Greeks such things."

The southerners are leaving money at the dump. Improved technology and high prices for raw materials have transformed recycling into a booming business worth more than €100 billion annually. Environmentalists say every 10,000 tons that reaches a recycling plant adds 250 jobs in an industry that, in Germany, already employs 60,000. "A few years ago this was considered a sleepy, boring industry," says Peter Kurth, CFO of Alba, the company responsible for that high-tech plant in Berlin. "Today it's one of the most dynamic, with private-equity funds fighting to get in." Alba has doubled its revenues to €750 million since 2004. Next, it plans to build a new plant to convert 75,000 tons of uneaten food from the city's eateries into organic biogas, turning good green intentions into profit. Says Kurth: "One of the cheapest forms of renewable energy is trash."

You might think such incentives would inspire imitation, but no. "The Germans want to know the rules, and then stick by them," says Bill Duncan of the Association for Sustainable Use and Recovery in Brussels. But Italians, not to mention Greeks? "It's in their nature not to do what central governments want." Even within countries, practices differ. Italy's northerners have assiduously followed EU and Italian environmental regulations for years. In the south, organized crime has a major stake in the garbage-collection business—dragging down the average recycling figure to less than 30 percent. Smart Neapolitans wear gas masks on especially fragrant days.

Efficient recycling demands investments that the poorer nations of Eastern Europe cannot afford. Cheap dumps in Hungary and the Czech Republic draw German businesses with troublesome waste to offload. "We still have a revolution to go through in Eastern Europe," says Duncan. "Waste management in these countries is still about a guy with a truck who comes to take it away." But change is underway: the EU predicts that the number of recycling workers in Eastern Europe will nearly double to 120,000 by 2020.

The north has trash issues, too. The EU has cited France and the Netherlands, among others, for failing to comply with landfill rules. A distrust of intrusive regulation has helped to keep Britain close to the bottom of the recycling league. Even so, dumping places are growing scarce. "Within nine years we won't have any holes left," says Sandra Issar of the Local Government Association in London. Her solution: some form of pay-as-you-throw tax that charges householders according to the amount dumped.

In the end, perhaps, that's the answer—the pressure of the pocketbook. "It's often argued that different countries have different cultures," says Martin Konecny, a waste campaigner with Friends of the Earth in Brussels. But make people pay for every kilo of unsifted waste left at the door, he suggests, and a new era of recycling will be born. The idea seems to be catching on. Earlier this month the European Parliament voted to impose a 50 percent target for recycling household waste by 2020, with penalties for offenders. That should set even the most careless Greeks to thinking. Why pay to dump trash when it can pay for itself?