By Dario Pontiggia
Αs an Italian writer once put it, all human things give one hand to rationality (ragione) and another hand to irrationality/absurdity (assurdo). Indeed, take my words in this article as the ones of someone who is fully aware of that. However, the extent of the problem I am raising is so absurd that as a resident of this island I feel obliged to have my say. This is not only out of respect for the country where I live, work and pay taxes but also because I believe that on this matter we should stop going hand-in-hand with absurdity and we should start, as much and as soon as possible, going hand-in-hand with rationality.
The problem is the accumulation of rubbish everywhere, along roads, in the fields, next to schools, in the cities, in the countryside, on the beaches, next to hospitals, next to houses.
The first key fact is that rubbish does not crawl out of bins. Rubbish gets where we see it because people throw it. This is where absurdity lies: we seem to want our cars, houses and shops to be clean, but the same does not hold for our country. Why does it seem to be socially acceptable to litter? At the end of the day, littering, or its lack thereof, is a matter of respect and civilisation and judging from what I see, regrettably Cyprus citizens do not show a great degree of that. The good news is that other countries’ experience can be helpful examples in shaping a long-lasting campaign directed toward changing peoples’ minds and hearts. Indeed, the programme “ReThink, Reduce – Reuse – Recycle”, funded by the EU Life +, is being launched with such intention.
The second fact is that rubbish remains so visible because the authorities do not seem interested in clearing it away or enforcing existing legislation. If people perceive that nothing is done about it, they have no incentive to stop dumping rubbish.
According to the provisions of the Solid and Hazardous Waste Law, local authorities have the responsibility and authority to collect, transport and dispose of the solid and hazardous waste. I recall reading an interview with New York former mayor Michael Bloomberg in which he was stating that his number one priority was keeping New York clean. He saw this as a step in stopping other more serious crime and keeping the city friendly for its residents and tourists. If the leaders of Cyprus local authorities were to share the same priority, we would not be in such a dire situation. Local authorities are failing to be even close to fulfilling their responsibility: bins are scarce, rubbish collection is sketchy, landfill management is nonexistent, to name a few and the list could keep on going. On the other hand, the municipal taxes we pay for waste collection are definitely not low and one has to wonder as to how the generated revenue is being used. The reform of local government currently being discussed must internalise such failure and tackle it as there are economies of scale to be exploited.
More generally, waste management presents so many benefits that comparing them to the costs involved should put the whole issue at the top of the list of things the government should direct structural funds. Waste has a value per se. At present, we literally send to the landfill valuable recyclable rubbish: plastic, glass, paper, cardboard, organic waste. The rubbish that cannot be recycled is also valuable: it can be used to produce energy as the waste-to-energy technology is now a reality and a viable option. Rationality suggests that if waste management was in place, even the rubbish produced by tourists, and not only the money they spend, would contribute positively to Cypriot national income. Moreover, aside from realising the direct benefits, there are also external benefits. A significant one is that tourists would also greatly appreciate a cleaner Cyprus.
Not only do we disregard the positive value that waste has but, given the lack of waste management, we generate negative value by degrading the image and appearance of the country. Cleaning up the country and keeping it clean can generate jobs and income. It’s a sector that has been largely neglected but could greatly contribute to development and growth.
Next time you are driving, or enjoying a day out with your family, notice each piece of rubbish left around. Try to count them and ask yourself this question: Do you really like Cyprus so dirty? And if your answer is No: Are you prepared to do your bit?
Dr Dario Pontiggia teaches economics at Neapolis University in Paphos