Anti-littering laws were common in ancient Greece, and often played an important role in everyday, citizen-led justice. On a road marker found on the island of Paros, an inscription states that "whoever drops their litter on the street owes drachmae to whoever wishes to claim them”. The sacred laws of archaic Greece gave citizens the rights to impose a fine on an offender, and collect all or part of that fine for themselves. This contributed towards a collective sense of justice, and fines for littering were a preventative measure that kept the Greek Poleis cleaner than many modern cities.
Another inscription from the Asklepeion at Kos from around 300 BC condemns litterers for polluting sacred springs and wells dedicated to the worship of local nymph gods with their votive offerings. It stresses that offerings were only to be made at the altar. In this case, the importance of cleanliness and lack of waste is shown to be particularly critical in sites with spiritual or religious importance.
Cleanliness and sanitation of the public space was an important part of protecting the common notion of Greek civilisation as an opposite to the ‘barbaric’ people from which all humans descended. The cleaner and more presentable public spaces were deemed suitable for the most wealthy citizens, while cities such as Corinth were criticised for their uncleanliness and susceptibility to disease.
Waste was collected in jars outside the demos (house), often carried by maids or servants and piled in stacks. Non-biodegradable waste products such as plastics and metals were far less common (plastics did not exist at all), so most waste could be safely disposed in fields to decompose and serve as fertiliser. However, they were far from perfect; in different cities waste was dumped onto the streets in large quantities. This practice was more prone to providing a habitat to disease-spreading animals and transmission of bacteria and viruses.
Nowadays in Greece, waste and pollution are serious concerns. Waste management has been recognised as one of the most pressing problems in Greece, which suffers from a low level of organisation for a European country, and relied mostly on semi-controlled landfills until the end of the previous century. Greece landfills the majority of its municipal waste (81%, far higher than the average 31% for the EU-28) and is almost at the bottom of the European sustainable waste management gradation.
In the land of the ancient city of Eleusis, the pilgrimage destination for thousands of people hoping to join the elusive Eleusinian Mysteries (a well-known ancient Greek cult), and the birthplace of the famous poet Aeschylus, today it is a major industrial centre, with the largest oil refinery in Greece. Environmental pollution and waste disposal are major problems in this area: on the Thriassion Plain, long queues of lorries wait their turn to dump more than 12,000 tonnes of rubbish a day, 38% of all Greece’s household rubbish, creating foothills of untreated waste.
On Islands such as Corfu, waste is often left out in the streets, not only creating a rotting smell in the summer sun but contributing to the spread of disease. The local Temploni landfill is overflowing and has been closed. Locals are fiercely resisting the opening of a new landfill, and local government pleas to allow it to ship the garbage off the island have been resisted in Athens. In 2018, the mass of household garbage had piled up to roughly 4,000 tons across the island.
Is the problem that Greece cares less about litter now than in ancient times? Possibly, but the problem is also to do with the sheer amounts of waste produced now in comparison, and the proportion of that waste which cannot biodegrade. Either way, municipalities in modern Greece could learn a thing or two from the Ancient Greeks on keeping their cities clean.
By Gabriel Ware