Malta’s waste management crisis is a complex problem. Decades of overconsumption and a lack of political will to address the issue have led to a situation where the country is producing more waste than it can sustainably manage. The problem has been exacerbated in recent years by the country’s growing population, the tourism boom, and the “growth at all costs” mantra.
The collective unlearning of a lifestyle which almost encourages wastefulness will not come easy as can be seen from the current resistance we have seen recently. The government has taken some bold steps to address the problem, such as introducing the new waste collection system, the BCRS system and banning single-use plastics. The new waste collection system is clearly a step in the right direction, since it was designed to wean off the public from taking the easy route and dump everything in the black bag. The daily black bag collection system was only delaying the inevitable and was not something that could be sustained in the long term.
Although Malta’s recycling figures were quite abysmal until recently, more recent data is showing an encouraging trend since the introduction of the BCRS scheme, the ban on single use plastics and also the new waste collection system. This in itself indicates that a large proportion of households are doing their best to be part of this positive change. Fostering similar initiatives which reduce the scale of the waste problem rather than promote unsustainable consumption will of course have a net positive effect too. However, one can draw parallels here with the introduction of seat belts (and smoking ban) in Malta. Education can go a long way but fines and solid enforcement are also necessary in order to catch up with the irresponsible individuals and businesses who lack any form of civic duty.
Government also needs to hold businesses accountable for their waste practices. This could be done through regulations, inspections, and enforcement. Better regulations within the cleaning and hospitality sectors should also be on the cards. These companies need to offer at least basic training to their staff on how to recycle and not have them dump all the waste in a black bag, which is then left on the street once they finish cleaning. Proper waste separation and disposal is seen as an additional, time-consuming effort which doesn’t yield profits, whereas the cleaning companies and their customers are equally interested in streamlining their operations and cutting costs, whilst literally dumping those costs on the waste infrastructure at the detriment of us all.
Although one understands that not everyone can have a compost bin at home and a space to store bags of recyclables, on a household level most of the inconveniences can easily be addressed with proper management and reduction with minor changes of some basic daily routines. Similarly, community composting initiatives have been very successful in other European countries and these can be replicated locally with very little investment too. Having said that, the current weekly schedule which collects organic waste three times per week is more than adequate for a typical household. The introduction of compost bag depositories which are traceable in order to limit abuse could also be considered for some hotspot areas.
The waste management crisis requires a concerted effort from everyone to make a difference. We need to change our habits, demand more from businesses, and support the government’s efforts to fine tune the new system where required. However, it is important to remember that this system is designed to change the way we think about waste. It is not enough to simply recycle and compost our waste; we also need to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place.
Managing our waste should not start at the point from when the waste is already generated but from the point of manufacturing, down to the supply chain and consumption. The economic costs of the waste management crisis are significant. Government spends millions of euros each year on waste disposal, and with a little bit of collective effort, this money could be better spent on other priorities.
Martin Galea De Giovanni holds an M.Sc in Environmental Management and Planning (Melit.). He is the Director at Friends of the Earth Malta.