Subsidising a waste management disaster

Writing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I cannot but spare a thought for medical professionals, doctors, nurses and all health care workers. May all this fizzle out quickly. May all of us act responsibly and avoid unnecessary panic and stop spreading conspiracy theories. Once this difficult time is over, our other challenges as a country and as citizens of this world will still be there: from climate change, global poverty, the laissez-faire culture in the building industry, to the failure of waste management locally.

Statistics about waste management in Malta make for interesting reading, a veritable eye-opener.  MaltaToday’s explainer on ticking waste bomb reveals three things. First, that as in so many other things, Maltese governments have procrastinated for too long on proper waste management and on waste reduction; secondly, that this procrastination will lead to management by crisis – actually probably we’re there already; and, third, that governments, including this government, are not ready to grab the bull by the horns when it comes to obliging businesses to do their part, by law.

The ‘friends of friends’ and laissez-faire culture promoted and espoused by the dominant political powers in Malta is glaringly obvious when it comes to waste management, and it’s one of the reasons why environment minister Aaron Farrugia threatened that “people will have nowhere to dump their black garbage bags” if government does not go ahead with the expansion of the Magħtab landfill.

It is pertinent to also remember that Nationalist governments failed on waste management big time, letting Magħtab turn into a mountain of construction waste, and peddled the myth of a ‘family park’ on the toxic mountain of waste. Of course, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat did not find waste a sexy enough topic which fitted his ‘best in Europe’ narrative.

While most households are doing their part, with 39% of packaging waste collected for recycling, those who use and produce the most packaging and also food waste, till this very day are not obliged by law to separate their huge amounts of waste. Hotels and restaurants, factories and all kinds of companies can just mix everything together, and it all goes into so called ‘commercial skips’, dumped lock stock and barrel into the landfill. What is Aaron Farrugia waiting for? When will waste separation in the commercial and private sector become compulsory? Or does this go against the ‘pro-market’ mantra of PM Robert Abela?

There is so much households can do; it is high time other sectors are made to shoulder their responsibilities. Commercial mixed waste can be dumped at Magħtab for a mere 50 cents plus nine cents VAT per tonne. The huge problem of mixed waste, the burden on society – not least farmers who will have their land taken away from them – the burden on the state, all for just 59 cents per tonne. How disgusting and shameful.

Added to this is the huge issue of construction waste. What is government waiting to require reuse of building material? Or is the developers’ lobby pulling the strings once again? Is business as usual part and parcel of Robert Abela’s pledge not to ‘restrain’ in any way developers even as the public pick up the bill and the consequences of lack of proper regulation of the sector even when it comes to waste management? Will it still remain cheaper to use virgin stone? What’s the sense in government’s laissez-faire attitude? We have had buildings collapsing and people dying with business-as-usual persisting; go figure if any action will be taken to restrain the sector and make them shoulder their responsibilities in waste management.

The opposite was done. This government is subsidising Sandro Chetcuti’s MDA to dump construction waste in quarries using, obviously, public funds. They know no shame. Government has a perverted understanding of the polluter-pays environmental principle. Instead of ensuring that the construction industry cleans up its act and adequately addresses the issue of how to deal with the waste that it generates, the government is irresponsibly using taxpayers’ money to subsidise their mess.

Instead of going to the source of the issue – reducing waste and enforcing the separation of waste, starting from the biggest producers of waste, together with incentives for the reduction of waste for SMEs – government is peddling another myth, that Malta needs an incinerator to burn 40% of our waste. This is just another excuse to avoid grabbing the bull by the horns. To avoid stepping on the toes of certain powerful sectors.

An incinerator burning 40% of waste would be a huge disincentive to policies to actually reduce waste and move to a circular economy. Why would we need an incinerator burning nearly half of the waste stream if the target is supposed to be recycling of 75% of packaging waste by 2030 and 65% of municipal waste by the same year? What about a real push for effective recovery and recycling schemes? What about obliging the commercial sector starting from the hospitality industry to recycle all of its packaging and food waste? How about our country taking the lead together with industry to redesign industrial processes and making them more sustainable and circular? An incinerator to avoid all this is unacceptable.

I’m afraid the business as usual mentality is so ingrained here that real and politically serious measures will not be taken. Short-cuts are easier. The party faithful will clap anyway, so why bother?

Ralph Cassar
Published in the Maltatoday – Wednesday 18 March 2020