17 / 06 / 2024

Tracing the Path of Greece’s Plastic Waste

In collaboration with Greenpeace Greece and Basel Action Network, we put trackers on plastic waste from recycle bins and followed their path. Some turned up in landfills, while some was exported to the Balkans. In the end, many of the myths surrounding recycling were dispelled.







Jim Puckett slowly walks down Alexandra Avenue carrying a garbage bag. He approaches a blue recycle bin and drops in a plastic bottle. Hidden inside the bottle lies a “secret”: a very expensive GPS tracker has been attached to it. In the coming months, it will record the exact route that the plastic bottle will travel.

This is just one of the trackers we used to track recyclables in various parts of the country, as part of our multi-month investigation in collaboration with Basel Action Network (BAN) and Greenpeace Greece, about the unknown routes of plastic waste.

The plastic bottle that Puckett, Executive Director of BAN, threw into a recycle bin in central Athens was the first to be fitted with a tracker. Most of the tracked waste was destroyed along the way. But the tracked waste that did survive, revealed that some plastics were never recycled and ended up in landfills or in recycling plants outside of Greece.

Puckett, who has devoted his life to investigating the waste trade and exposing the interests that promote it, describes a consistent pattern: richer countries send their waste to poorer ones. “It is unethical and unsustainable,” he emphasizes. 

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest and most challenging environmental problems worldwide. It primarily affects the poorest countries and the most vulnerable populations, not only in countries like Indonesia, but also within Europe, where poorer EU members are becoming repositories of their more developed partners’ plastic waste, especially after China’s solid waste import ban in 2018.

Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network, throws tracked plastic waste into a recycling bin in central Athens. Greece, February 28, 2023, Alexandros Avramidis

Recycling: a broken promise

For Puckett, the blue recycling bins are a promise that was never kept. “Everything you throw in the blue bin is recycled. This is the message they are sending to the world. In fact, very little plastic is recycled.”

Indeed, of the 41 million tons of plastic waste managed within the EU per year, only 29% is recycled. The rest is sent for energy recovery through combustion or end up in the landfill.

The case of Greece is typical. According to the data provided by the Hellenic Recovery Recycling Corporation (HERRCO) which manages the contents of the blue recycle bins, only 50% of their contents are recycled.

On the trail of Greece’s plastic waste

The investigation lasted five months. We talked to experts in the field of plastic recycling, met with Greek and foreign entrepreneurs in the field, heard the opinions of scientists and activists, gathered and analyzed official and unpublished data, and visited plants in Bulgaria and Romania where plastic waste from Greece ends up.

For years, the much-desired transition to a circular economy has been based on the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle”. Also known as the “waste hierarchy”, this principle is promoted as a solution to the huge problem of plastic pollution that threatens ecosystems and people.

But the burden falls mainly on recycling − a supposedly righteous process without any negative consequences. In a Greenpeace survey,  almost 90% of the Greeks who participated said that recycling plastic “can drastically help the environment”. 

In the city of Xanthi, where we disposed of tracked waste in recycle bins, we met English teacher Maria Antoniadou next to a blue bin. Ms. Antoniadou recycles religiously. “This is how I contribute to the protection of the environment. The materials will be reused to make something else.” 

But this is only partly true – if not a convenient myth.

“We live in a country and a planet where, in the best cases, about one in ten plastic bottles end up at the recycling plant. The rest goes to the landfill, to the seas. And even doubling our recycling efforts won’t solve the problem. Nevertheless, the dominant narrative is that we will increase recycling and everything will be fine,” says Nikos Charalambidis, director of Greenpeace Greece, who we met at the organization’s headquarters in Metaxourgeio.

As he describes it, recycling is seen as a well-oiled and well-financed machine. “It has cartoon characters, it has special boxes, it has little houses – the message is ‘what a beautiful thing’, but we say that recycling is absurd and should be the exception and not the solution or the rule.”

Ms. Antoniadou, who carefully separates her trash, would probably be disappointed if she found out that the tracked waste that we discarded in a blue bin in the center of her city ended up in the Kavala landfill. The same thing happened to another recyclable that we disposed of in the capital of Syros, which ended up at the island’s landfill.

The data also reveals something else: much of the plastic recyclables that actually reach the sorting stage, may end up thousands of kilometers away, in loads that initially burden the atmosphere with additional carbon dioxide emissions.

By exporting plastic waste, however, the cost of managing it for the environment and public health is also exported. Scientists, environmentalists, and activists have documented that recycling is not only not a solution, but may be part of the problem: it reassures citizens − in Europe, 35 kg of plastic packaging waste is produced per capita − thereby reducing the incentive to reduce use.

With this data, we can presume that the annual production of plastics worldwide is not only not decreasing, but increasing by leaps and bounds. It surged from 234 million tons in 2000 to 460 in 2019. During the same period, plastic waste more than doubled. And demand continues to grow exponentially. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), by 2060 plastic consumption will have tripled.

Investing in even more recycling plants cannot solve the problem. Instead, it creates what is known in economics as the “lock-in effect”: huge investments in recycling facilities and infrastructure make societies a “captive” of recycling, even if it is not the ideal waste management solution.

And it is certainly not an ideal solution. Not only because recycled plastic is of inferior quality and new plastic is needed to create a new product, but also because the process itself is not as “green” as advertised.

The not-so-green process of recycling

In a landmark study published in a prestigious scientific journal in May 2023, an international team of scientists made an impressive discovery: plastic recycling can release huge amounts of microplastics into water and pollute the air. A finding even more alarming given that it was discovered in a state-of-the-art recycling plant in a wealthy western country, Britain.

Released microplastics equivalent to 13% of recycled plastic were found in the samples. Microplastics, i.e. plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size, are polluting the planet – they have even been found in fresh snow in Antarctica – while they have been detected in human blood and can be toxic to plants, animals, and people. 

According to the most recent Eurobarometer survey available, 94% of Greeks are worried about their effects.

The first stop after the blue bin

The recyclable materials from the blue bins are first separated in an initial phase at Recyclable Materials Collection Centers that are located throughout Greece. The largest and most modern collection center is in Koropi, where garbage trucks unload 400-500 tons of recyclables from 30 municipalities in Athens every day.

There we met Konstantinos Verganelakis, engineer and plant manager of the WATT company. Verganelakis confirmed that only half of the contents of each bin can end up being recycled. And 50% of this material is usually exported.

“It is the market value and it is purely a matter of demand and supply. We also export to Europe and Asia, depending on the material. Usually, the flexible materials, like plastic bags, go to Balkan countries,” he noted.

Plastic trash on a processing line at the Recyclable Materials Collection Center in Koropi, Greece, February 28, 2023, Alexandros Avramidis

Bulgaria’s “dead” river

One of the trucks loading materials from the collection center was on its way to Bulgaria, which absorbs some of the Greek plastic, and is already facing consequences from the processing of the material.

It was Saturday morning on January 25, 2020, when fisherman Valentin Danailov received a message from another fisherman near Pazardzhik, a small town of 70,000 in southern Bulgaria, built on the banks of the Evros River, or Maritsa as it’s called by the locals.

The message was accompanied by photographs showing huge quantities of dead fish washed up on its shores. For 46-year-old Danailov, who learned to fish alongside his father when he was five years old, the sight was infuriating. “Dead fish of all kinds washed up in the river. Terrifying sight. Fish poisoned in their natural environment. A genocide.”

Bulgarian authorities discovered high levels of contamination in the river, causing the fish to die immediately. The incident was described as the worst case of toxic contamination in the history of the Evros, affecting 26 kilometers of the river.

Plastic debris, which an independent panel of expert scientists identified as remnants of the recycling process, pointed to a local recycling company, Ecoinvest, as a suspect. The local prosecutor brought two charges against the company’s management, for environmental pollution and uncontrolled waste management.

The company temporarily halted production, and on January 26, water samples from the river came back clean. Authorities have not yet completed their investigation, charges have not resulted in convictions, and the company insists it has upgraded its management system, and that the water it uses is in a closed circuit and does not pollute the river.

Today, there aren’t any visible signs left in the area where the worst pollution incident in the history of the Evros River, between Pazardzhik and Plovdiv, was recorded. At dusk, its calm waters flowed under a small bridge, crossing a green expanse. A single point of life could be seen − a lonely fisherman. A short time later, he packed up his rods and bait and went home with empty hands. The river, according to scientists, is now “completely dead” in parts.

Three and a half years after that incident, a white truck entered the gates of the Ecoinvest plant shortly after 11am. A worker in a yellow vest opened the sliding door. Inside the truck there were tons of plastic waste in bundles, piled on top of each other. In one of the bundles, a label with Greek letters could be seen – a packaging label from a Greek courier service.

“It just arrived from Greece,” the Ecoinvest executive who welcomed the truck, told us. The plastic waste from Greece was placed next to the 1,500-1,800 tons of other plastic waste, which overwhelms the 20,000 square meter facility.

A clerk unloads plastic waste imported from Greece at the Ecoinvest recycling plant, Pazardzhik, Bulgaria, May 23, 2023, Alexandros Avramidis
Plastic waste imported from Greece at the Ecoinvest plastic recycling plant, Pazardzhik, Bulgaria, May 23, 2023, Alexandros Avramidis

“I would equate it to gold”

Ecoinvest is one of the leading companies in the country’s waste recovery industry with a 10% share of the domestic packaging waste market. It’s also one of 177 companies which is licensed to import trash from abroad for waste recovery. Many of these companies were established or expanded their operations after the Chinese bans.

Greece is a key supplier of plastic waste to both the company and Bulgaria in general – and is becoming increasingly important. Imports from Greece have been increasing by leaps and bounds in recent years: 48,000 tons in 2022, more than double the amount compared to 2020.

“To most people, this is just rubbish. For us, it is the beginning of our business activity. I would equate it to gold,” said Timohir Lazarov, a soft-spoken technocrat.

Ecoinvest is profitable, supported by European Union regional funds, and has just invested in a new, state-of-the-art production line. “It’s the Rolls Royce of plastic recycling,” Lazarov told us proudly, pointing to the fancy machine, full of lights and indicators. His only complaint was that there isn’t enough plastic trash to make the new state-of-the-art line work at 100% capacity. “We need more plastic.”

The company then sells 80% of the recovered plastic, mainly overseas, but also to Asia, where it will be used in industries such as construction and agriculture. The main customer of its finished products: Greece.

Bulgaria has invested in the sector and now importing waste is welcome – at least by the politicians. “The import of waste for recovery and recycling in Bulgaria is extremely important for the Bulgarian economy and especially for manufacturing,” the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment told us. The “lock-in effect” in practice.

View of the Ecoinvest recycling plant. Pazardzhik, Bulgaria, May 23, 2023. Alexandros Avramidis
Workers separate plastics at the Ecoinvest recycling plant. Pazardzhik, Bulgaria, May 23, 2023. Alexandros Avramidis

“Before China, negotiations were difficult”

We travelled 270 kilometers northeast of Pazardzhik, to the town of Veliko Tarnovo, to visit another giant of the Bulgarian recycling industry with a Greek clientele: Megaport.

Every month, 200 tons of plastic waste arrives here from Greece, a type of plastic waste classified as LDPE (low density polyethylene)  − a quantity that represents 10% of its raw material. Megaport buys the waste from Greek collection centers and private companies, paying, depending on the quality, from €5 to €350 per ton. After it is recycled, it is often sold back to Greece in the form of either pellets or black garbage bags. However, 8% cannot be recycled and is either converted into RDF (refuse-derived fuel) to be burned in Bulgaria’s cement plants or ends up in the landfill.

The Chinese solid waste import ban, as well as strict export conditions to non-OECD countries imposed by the EU, was like a gift from the heavens for companies like Megaport. “Before the ban, you went to Athens and negotiations were difficult. They told us ‘that’s the price, if you don’t like it, there’s always China’.”


For 33-year-old Danita Zarichinova, plastic recycling is nothing more than a glorified business of “greenwashing”, which serves only industries and gives consumers the illusion that they are doing their part.

“Plastic recycling is not only not a solution, but it also causes a series of problems, from water use and environmental pollution, to the unknown composition of plastic waste. Recycling is in most cases marketing and advertising, not a magic solution to the plastic problem,” said Zarichinova, from the environmental organization Za Zemiata (For the Earth) which has been studying the issue for years and succeeded this year, after almost a ten-year legal battle, in stopping the construction of a colossal waste incineration plant in Sofia.

We met Zarichinova in Lozenets, an affluent neighborhood in the center of Sofia, next to a corner with separate bins for various types of waste. Even in the “nice area” with its well-dressed residents and organic shops, the bins were overflowing and the trash was not separated. Zarichinova described a chaotic and inefficient recycling system in the country, which, combined with the explosion of business activity in the recycling industry, has created a high demand for imported plastic waste from countries such as Germany, Italy, and Greece.

According to her, there is only one solution: “not to use products that cannot be recycled and to think much more about reuse and above all about prevention.”

Greece: Exporter and importer of waste

Greece itself is part of the so-called “trash trade”. Just in a different form. That of importing RDF for fuel for the cement industry.

We travelled to Volos. On the outskirts of the city, the idyllic landscape created by the blue waters of the Pagasetic Gulf and the green forest of Pelion is interrupted by a colossal cement factory. In 2022, AGET/Lafarge, the company that owns the plant, imported 70,000 tons of RDF from Italy and plans to triple this amount in the near future. RDF is a fuel produced from waste, including plastic. Greece, despite its abundance of waste, does not produce enough RDF, which is considered “greener” than pet-coke, or petroleum coke, a solid material byproduct of oil refining.

The AGET cement plant in Volos. The factory uses RDF as an energy source, which is supplied from Greece and abroad. Volos, Greece, March 28, 2023. Alexandros Avramidis

The company has its own port facilities for receiving shipments of RDF. Each ship carries 3,000 tons.

Many locals fear that the burning of waste at the plant contributes to air pollution levels, which have reached record highs in Volos on half of the days each year. Stroke and liver cancer rates here are several times higher than the national average.

Of course, the financial incentive is important. RDF is cheaper than natural gas, with the company collecting a “gate fee” from the Italians and thus avoiding pollution fines − emissions from the burning of RDF are not measured. Emissions of course do not disappear. “If society wants cement, unfortunately, we will have carbon dioxide,” says Michalis Vlachos, general manager of the plant in Volos.

The burning of waste so close to the city and plans to intensify the practice have been raising alarm bells for years. A leading figure in the local resistance movement against waste burning at the cement plant is retired engineer Stelios Limnios.

Stelios Limnios, an activist against the burning of waste at the AGET/Heraklis cement factory, outside the courts of Volos. Volos, March 17, 2023. Alexandros Avramidis

Limnios has been active for three decades in the ecological movement. For years now, he has been fighting against the burning of waste at AGET/Heraklis with every means: with mobilizations, events, marches, and a conviction to a three-month prison sentence. In September 2019, as a member of the Committee of Citizens’ Struggle against waste incineration, Limnios entered the guarded facilities of AGET/Heraklis to prevent a shipment of waste from Italy from being burned. 

The legal adventures haven’t deterred Limnios, who was acquitted last October, along with others, for that action. He continues the fight. According to him, the factory should be moved away from the urban area and systematic, unbiased measurements should be made of the pollutants and other environmental effects of the plant’s operation in Volos.

“We have no confidence,” he told us near the city court, where he was once again accused. “In Volos, the plan is to build an RDF unit that will take the remains of Larissa, Trikala, and maybe Lamia as well. The local community opposes this. They don’t recycle, they promote burning this for fuel.” 

The company categorically denies any involvement in environmental pollution – it stresses continuous controls, both of imported RDF and pollutants, but also of its environmental footprint. It also promotes maximizing substitution as an environmentally-friendly policy. “Year after year we make investments and try to maximize the percentage of energy from alternative fuels,” he said. Their goal is to bring the percentage of alternative fuels close to 90%. In 2022, they invested 7 million euros in alternative fuels, and will invest another 20-30 million by 2026.

The Council of State may put the brakes on these plans. In mid-October, it banned the transportation of RDF by ship, by sea, with the local environmental movement speaking of a “great victory for the people of Volos.” 

We asked the company how it interprets this decision and how it will be affected by it. “With its decision, the Council of State ruled that in regards to two conditions of the AEPO, due process was not followed and therefore canceled two conditions for formal and not substantive reasons,” he noted, concluding that the activity and operation of the plant is not affected.

Following a plastic bottle

The course of the GPS tracker that was placed in a plastic water bottle and discarded in central Athens led us to a second European country, where, along with Bulgaria, Greece exports tons of its plastic trash. Following the route taken by the bottle, we arrived in northern Romania at the recycling company Professional Recycling, in Târgu Mureș.

Like Bulgaria, especially after the Chinese solid waste import ban, Romania became a country that legally (but in many cases, illegally) imports dangerous plastic waste from other European countries. 

Activists began to report an uncontrolled situation, fueled by corruption networks in the country. In 2021, Romania was forced, under this pressure, to impose limits on imported waste, and adopted a waste monitoring system. “Romania will not become the dumping ground of Europe,” the Minister of the Environment had said.

Plastic bottles stored at a Professional Recycling facility. One of our tracked plastic bottles that we threw away in Athens ended up in this facility. Târgu Mureș, Romania, June 19, 2023. Alexandros Avramidis

Our plastic bottle followed this route and arrived at the company’s facility. There, a bored employee operated a forklift, moving colorful balls of plastic bottles into the factory, where they entered the “production line” to be turned into plastic flakes.

Among the waste, we could distinguish Greek labels: bottles of water, soft drinks, and milk waiting to be recycled hundreds of kilometers away from where they were tossed into recycle bins. The company was founded in 2010 and is considered a model of plastic waste management. 

Exemplary recycling centers, in a country without recycling

“In Romania, there are two categories of recyclers: we have four or five exemplary recycling plants and hundreds of other pseudo-recyclers,” admitted Raul Pop, a waste management expert and program manager at the organization Ecoteca.

The company Professional Recycling seems to belong to the first category. The large modern facilities, where health and safety rules are observed, were in stark contrast to the local plastic recycling scrapyards, but also to the overall picture of waste management in the country, where even in its capital, Bucharest, we found very few recycle bins. 

This image is reflected in the numbers. Romania has one of the lowest recycling rates in the entire EU, yet it imports thousands of tons of plastic every year from other countries, often with much better recycling performance than its own.

Workers separate plastic waste at Green Tech recycling plant. Buzău, Romania. June 16, 2023, Alexandros Avramidis

The Chinese plastic bag-recycling facility 

It was a very different picture at another recycling factory we visited in Bucharest. Using the archives of the Romanian environmental inspection bureau and the statements of Greek-owned plastic waste trading businesses, we identified a company, with Chinese interests, that imports plastic bags from Greece.

We visited the company, which is housed in a warehouse, and saw countless bales of plastic bags outside, melting under the hot sun, among rusted equipment. Inside the warehouse, workers (no adherence to necessary safety requirements), turned the bags into strips at a frantic pace.

Company representatives declined to meet with us or to comment. The question that reasonably arises from the conditions we witnessed is whether this company pollutes the environment. “There are not enough inspections to ensure compliance with environmental rules,” noted Raul Pop, adding that the relevant services have so far issued operating licenses to approximately 3,500 recycling companies. “About 200 of them actually recycle.”

“I have seen illegal cargo everywhere, in ports, on trucks, commercial trains. Illegal waste is hidden behind expensive furniture. When the inspector asks them to come out, the workers claim they cannot move the furniture,” described Octavian Berchenau, former head of the environmental inspection bureau and long-time waste import activist.

As he mentioned, good plastic, which according to him does not exceed 15% of all imports, has value and thus ends up in recovery factories, so that it can acquire a second life. The inferior quality plastic that countries want to get rid of ends up in fields, in legal or “invisible” illegal landfills.

Corruption networks, low waste disposal costs

One reason this happens in Romania is the lack of inspections, the corruption networks and the low cost of (legal or illegal) waste disposal.

Romania has one of the lowest waste disposal costs in the EU: €100 per ton for legal landfills, while the cost of illegal disposal, according to Berchenau, does not exceed €20 per ton.

However, he, like Raul Pop, argues that while in legal landfills it is forbidden to bury waste from other regions − let alone from other countries − the rule is being evaded. A mayor of a suburb of Bucharest told us, on the condition of anonymity, that despite rumors about the disposal of toxic waste in a landfill right next to his area and the many complaints of residents regarding respiratory problems, the company that had taken over the management of the landfill never allowed him entry, until the landfill was closed.

Coal: “The treasure”

The “gold” that Bulgarian manager Timohir Lazarov referred to when describing recyclable plastics, turns out to be carbon, and the infamous green arrow recycling symbol on packaging never actually completes its cycle, turning the circular economy into an illusory promise.

Nikos Charalambidis, from Greenpeace Greece, hopes that more and more citizens will realize this grim reality.

“Single use plastics and items are the problem. End of story. The point is to highlight this absurdity, to see how we can use the absurdity of plastic waste that travels around Greece or the world in the name of recycling, only to end up in a market that sells and in a society that uses far fewer single use items.”

GPS tracking technology was used to track recyclable plastics. Tracking with trackers is part of a project undertaken by BAN, which is not limited to Greece, with the aim of using GPS tracking data to reveal the actual exporters, shipping lines, commercial trade routes, flow trends and, most importantly, the final destination of plastic waste.

In Greece, 26 trackers were used by Greenpeace and 5 were used by the investigative journalists.

EarthEye portal was used for the GPS tracking and tracing the route of the waste.

When placing the trackers, we noted the tracker number, the corresponding plastic waste item, the location of deposit and recorded via video documentation.

We then carried out regular checks to see where the tracked plastics were located.

Two ended up in the Syros landfill; two in a landfill near Patras; one in the Kavala landfill; one in the Litis biological treatment plant, in the prefecture of Thessaloniki; one in Romania; and one more, which was attached to dangerous medical waste − its last signal gave its location in a common trash bin in Toumba, Thessaloniki.

The final signal that the remaining trackers sent out, showed their location as the same recycle bins they had been placed in. 

This investigation was completed with the support of the non-profit media organization iMEdD.

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