Battery-powered Greek island bets on a green future

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The sun sets behind a wind turbine on the island of Tilos in southeastern Greece. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

TILOS, Greece – When deciding where to test green technologies, Greek policymakers chose the furthest point on the map: tiny Tilos.

Electricity and basic services, even access by ferry, are all challenges for this island of barely 500 inhabitants per year. His most recent problem involves plastic.

But authorities announced last week that more than 80% of Tilos’ waste is now recycled. A landfill where untreated waste was once buried on a hillside has been permanently closed.

The island has already generated most of its own electricity since 2019, using a solar farm and a wind turbine linked to trailer-sized batteries that maintain an uninterrupted supply.

S-shaped and slightly larger than Manhattan, Tilos is a remote member of a chain of islands in the southeastern Aegean, where most beaches are empty, goats roam next to centuries-old churches and the jagged mountains smell of wild oregano. Autonomy is a necessity here and a source of pride.

The same goes for technology adoption.

At the main port, electric vehicles buzz past tourists, transporting goods. Solar panels power information panels at bus stops and a ramp for people with disabilities to access the sea.

Mayor Maria Kamma-Aliferi said the dwindling population of Tilos added to the urgency for change. “In the 1990s, there were 270 people left on this island. There were very few births. The school was in danger of closing because it had so few children – I was one of them,” she said.

“And the island was almost completely deserted.”

But the mayor stayed on the island and took college correspondence courses to prepare for business school and learn about public administration.

“We’ve come to the brink, and I think that’s what drives us now,” she said, standing at the site of the former landfill where flowers have now been planted.

With tourism in the Mediterranean set to rebound this summer from the worst of the pandemic, many Greek islands are facing urgent pressure on their resources: a lack of clean water and a reliance on diesel to generate electricity as energy prices continue to soar.

Greece has around 200 populated islands, many of which still experience power outages in the summer and struggle to cope with overflowing landfills, normally hidden in the hills.

Tilos is expecting 30,000 visitors this summer, while the neighboring island of Rhodes is expected to receive more than 2 million by air.

Starting in December, Tilos piloted a household waste collection program, with residents handing in recycling kits and asking them to wash and separate household waste.

“It’s working. We started with 10 houses and are now at over 400,” said Athanasios Polychronopoulos, who runs a Greek recycling company, Polygreen, which offered the service for free, hoping to expand its model. .

“It’s an island community that is open to change. He volunteered to host refugees and organized the first same-sex partnership ceremony in Greece. We had other options, but we knew we had to start here,” he said.

The old landfill site has been replaced with a recycling plant where waste is separated on steel sorting tables to produce powdered glass, cement mix, compost fertilizer, compressed cardboard and paper drums, and plastic string that an art gallery is using to make 3D-printed sofas and furniture.

The plant currently processes approximately 2 tonnes of waste per week, most of which is fully recycled. Around a third is composted and 15% – classed as “non-recyclable” – is sterilized and ground up for use in construction.

The company uses a proprietary application to prepare incoming waste that is weighed at each door-to-door pickup. It did not release financial details of the plan.

“We are still making mistakes and learning,” Polychronopoulos said. “To our surprise, the elderly are the best at sorting waste. It makes sense, if you think about it: they can remember what things looked like before there was plastic. »

Some locals also remember that it was rare to see a ship pass by Tilos. Rhodes is still two hours away by ferry; mainland Greece is 15.

“We always wondered where all the plastic would go. And deep down inside, we always thought we had to do something about it,” says beachfront restaurant owner Nikos Atsiknoudas.

Between preparing meals, waiting tables, and clearing them for new customers, staff pour everything into color-coded bins.

“It’s extra work, but no one can argue with the long-term benefits,” he says. “We have a lot of foreign visitors. They are more used to recycling than us and they love it.

Official visits to Tilos are rare and greeted with fanfare, with children in traditional costumes congregating at the port. The most recent was Greece’s Energy and Environment Minister Costas Skrekas, who arrived on Tuesday with aides from the prime minister’s office to tour the new recycling plant.

“Our small islands are facing difficulties due to the remoteness from the mainland and the (environmental) burden of tourism,” he said after meeting schoolchildren during a recycling awareness class.

“Once again the beautiful island of Tilos is a trendsetter.”

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