A brisk walk along Dionysiou Areopagitou and Panathinea streets, just ten minutes from the Acropolis, brings you to probably the crummiest neighborhood in all of Athens, Greece. The area is known as Tavros, and despite being caught in an almost inescapable state of disrepair, it is also somehow experiencing a massive building spree. The banks of one of the Kifissos River’s tributaries—where a row of small churches stand tall in what used to be olive groves and vineyards—is now the site of the new Panathinaiko Stadium and the city’s biggest shopping mall. Nearby is the recently erected Athens Stock Exchange. Surrounding it all are junkyards, abandoned tanneries, shacks, and seedy nightclubs.
It has created a thousands-strong yet still-secret universe of garbage foragers—smack in the center of the country’s capital. Here men and women on three-wheeled motorcycle contraptions crisscross the city every day, rummaging in garbage bins for anything made of metal. They have generated a ghost economy and in turn offer a bleak snapshot of the current recycling process that many bill as “green” but is in fact poo-brown. We were drawn to this place in the heart of Athens by Raw Material, a documentary that filmmaker Christos Karakepelis is putting together. The film, which he plans to take on the festival circuit later this year, took more than six years of research and interviews with scrappers and “rag collectors.” It left him dizzy. “Scrap metal at this point is a financial commodity,” says Christos. “It is no longer profitable for industries to dig metal out of the earth. Cities are today’s quarries, and the gold deposits are in the cities’ trash cans and rubbish.” These days, Greece’s bottom class shoulders more than 1.5 million pounds of steel to the scrapyard annually. Almost all of it is from Athens. Not exactly a great picture for the tourist board. The way it works is like everywhere else in the world, only on a market-making scale: Gypsies hock their stuff to small yards, which in turn resell to larger ones. Trucks take the loot from the biggest suppliers to the foundries, where it is melted down and recast. Some guy who is already very rich gets decidedly richer. “The loose garbage culture has created a lumpenproletariat,” Christos says. When we arrived, though, what we found were packs of rambunctious kids, all hamming it up for the camera, running around barefoot and topless, and leading us through a maze of shacks and mammoth mounds of garbage. The youngest seemed completely oblivious to their predicament. In the older children, there is a noticeable despair. It is estimated that Greece currently has between 80,000 and 100,000 rag collectors and metal peddlers. Many of them live in the Greek capital. Organized, they could paralyze the industry and force the price of iron rods through the roof, creating a financial crisis in real estate across the country. This, of course, will never happen. The work done by scrap collectors has not been included in any environmental study. But in the course of a given day they tidy hunks of the urban landscape, doing a job that should be the responsibility of the municipalities or the state. The police mostly look the other way. The scrappers are not licensed garbage collectors, and they usually steal most of their electricity and water. Rodents breed where they live, feasting on their refuse and sometimes on their children. The police wouldn’t have a place to put them all even if they had any interest in putting them somewhere. “No one goes where these people go to collect trash,” says Christos, “and where they live is off-limits and impossible to reach unaccompanied.” One recent Saturday morning, a torrential rain turned the narrow streets of Athens’s Renti area into a bog. Still, the Gypsies mined the streets and we were excited to be invited along. We met up with a couple of Christos’s friends, made a few pickups, and headed into a scrapyard. The proprietor wouldn’t speak to us, didn’t want any photos taken, and was extremely suspicious. In this yard, a person can walk away with 30 cents for two-plus pounds of scrap metal. This means that, at very best, a scrapper with a full tricycle can earn about $20 for two full loads. One other setback: It takes the help of an entire family to move a full load. Christos explained that every 20 minutes a steel factory’s foundries turn about 100 tons of scrap into liquid, producing between 85 and 90 tons of steel. This continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s beyond massive. After making the rounds, we headed into our guides’ hidden encampment, which rises against the backdrop of the Acropolis and is home to 200 families that, as far as the Greek state is concerned, don’t exist. Over the years, Christos has forged several friendships inside the shanty: “I have gone to countless numbers of their weddings and baptisms, to earn their trust and to be able to mingle with them,” he told us. We walked behind him wide-eyed and aghast at the spectacle—impromptu shacks made of wooden pallets, doors from chunks of demolished buildings, hillock after hillock of dismantled metal parts, and giant laminated posters extracted from billboards and pasted up ornamentally. Incredibly, some of the living quarters feature a second story. There are about 800 kids in the encampment’s 200 shacks. Most of the families have several children, which is part of the reason they’re stuck here. “I tried renting a house in Nikaia,” said a chubby, red-faced man in broken Greek, “but I have 15 kids. We moved in, and after a few days the owner came and threw us out because the neighbors had complained.” The guy doesn’t look a day over 40. Children here certainly count as another set of hands to be put to work. Unfortunately much of the scrap material is toxic: cathode-ray-tube panels and funnels from TVs are 40 percent lead, for example. “In Greece, the largest telecom and electric companies would rather give their unused cables to the Gypsies than pay storage costs,” Christos told me. “The Gypsies then burn the cables in order to extract the copper and bronze wire, because pure copper—minus the plastic, rubber, and other insulation—sells at $5 per pound. With the insulation it fetches $3.” Scrappers get the cable on the sly from large companies, and, as it doesn’t require that they leave the area, it is the children who go about melting it. Cancer is more than a slight concern. Of course there are no statistics to reference, no studies to cite, and, judging by the happy-go-lucky looks on the local kids’ faces in this report, you’ll have to take our word for how unimaginably dire the situation is. How about we leave it at this totally unconfirmable but thoroughly canvassed tidbit: We were told repeatedly by villagers that the average seven-year-old kid in charge of burning his or her family’s plastic away from the family’s copper usually doesn’t make it past the age of 15.