Editorial: Waste not, want not

Last Updated on Friday, 11 December, 2020 at 10:52 am by Andre Camilleri

The topic of waste isn’t a popular subject with the Maltese people; it’s only now that it feels the seeds of this much-needed cultural shift are being sowed. In the early 2000s, the problem became apparent in Malta when the phrase “mini Magħtab” became local slang for any mound of rubbish. At the same time, the authorities acknowledged that Magħtab simply could not grow any higher. Malta’s trash “mountain” had literally reached its peak.

The hype, backed by strict EU legislation, led to the decommissioning of the Magħtab landrise in 2004, along with the addition of an entrance gate, the setting up of a disposal fee and a statistical database that tracked waste production. We also saw a number of facilities introduced, including civic amenity and bring-in sites.

Man-made waste generation has exploded in the last 30 years; not just in Malta, but globally, having an unprecedented impact upon each and every one of us. A significant issue is one-way products like drinks and milk in Tetra-Pak cartons, single-use items and countless other non-durable items that, years after they are disposed of, can still be identified in our landfills. For Malta, this presents a stressful challenge with no easy way out.

We all know too well, littering ruins both the countryside and our coastlines, while waste treatment is land-intensive, creating conflict. Finding suitable places for waste treatment facilities presents a stressful headache, often digging up deeply rooted political divides and a sense of resentment related to a case of “not in my backyard” syndrome. Some feel the geographical separation of our islands from mainland Europe limits our recycling capacity and resale opportunities, meaning that recycling companies incur higher costs to transport materials – an island problem.

The country report entitled, “Environmental Implementation Review 2019”, pinpoints that Malta’s current recycling rate is considerably lower than the EU’s average efforts. It’s here we begin to see the scope of the issue. According to the report, the EU was only a few per cent behind hitting its 2020 recycling target of 50% (46%). Malta has only reached 6%. At the same time, the amount of waste sent to landfills also far exceeds the EU’s average. According to the figures, Malta has been sending 86% of its refuse to landfills compared to the 24% within the EU.

This is also reflected in the amount of municipal waste recycling which represents the EU average as being a clear 30 or more percentage points above Malta in the 2010-2017 period (38% to 47%). Malta on the other hand, has managed between 5 and 10% across the period. The figures speak for themselves.

There’s no denying the waste cycle is exceptionally arduous – environmentally, socially and economically. Economic costs are apparent and salient in the taxes spent by the government to run the whole operation daily. Environmental costs encompass air and sea pollution, including carbon emissions, together with adverse effects on biodiversity and aesthetics.

On a social level, we all endure the foul smells from the treatment facilities and the nuisance caused by collection trucks. All of these issues mean that treatment methods cannot be looked at one by one. What is required is a holistic, cradle-to-cradle (regenerative) approach, starting from product inception until it is rid of and, in some cases, recycled.  This urgent shift from the “supply, production, consumption and rejection” model to a model based on “reuse, repair, refurbish and recycle” is needed. This week’s Minister Aaron Farrugia’s eco hive proposals and waste strategy plans for the islands are much welcome news – if a little overdue.

- Advertisement -