How the Garbage Pickers of Athens Predicted the Greek Economic Crisis
In the shadow of the Acropolis, they set off before dawn. Men and boys driving rusty trucks, pushing heavy hand-carts, towing wagons behind battered motorcycles. As the city slowly comes to life, they are already well into their day’s work, scouring alleys and Dumpsters for old box-spring mattresses, appliances, car parts, anything they can salvage and sell at a scrap yard for a few dollars a day.
Many Athens residents have been struggling to get by since economic and political crisis erupted in Greece, threatening to engulf much of Europe. But the estimated 80,000 Athenians who collect and process scrap in the city’s informal economy were eking out their meager livings back when the rest of the city was still living large.
“In 2004, when we started filming, nobody was talking about poverty or corruption,” says Greek filmmaker Christos Karakepelis, who spent six years capturing life among Athens’s scavengers for his documentary, Raw Material. “Greece was celebrating the Olympic Games; everything seemed bright and hopeful,” he says.
That optimism led Greece to invest $15 billion in new sporting facilities for the Games and helped drive consumer spending to record levels. But Karakepelis says the precariousness of Greece’s situation was evident even back then to anyone who bothered to look at the city’s underclass, the thousands of people living in shanty homes cobbled together from scrap wood and lined with old billboards.