Incineration: the accumulated cost of incompetence

Minister Josè Herrera, on behalf of the government, has recently published the Technical Report on the setting up of a Waste to Energy facility in Malta. Prior to the commissioning of the report, the government had already taken the political decision that it should go for incineration.

In fact, Minister Herrera states in the introduction to the report that the “bold decision” was taken by government in July 2017.

As a consequence, the published report addresses the “how” and not the “if” question on incineration.

There is no doubt that the technology exists to ensure that the direct impacts of the incineration of waste are reduced to a minimum. The point at issue is, however, not on its possibility but on whether it is the desired option – and in my opinion it is not.  However, unfortunately the alternatives to incineration take time to be developed and there has been no political will over the years to implement the realistic identified alternatives.

The Waste Management Plan for the Maltese Islands was updated in 2014 and a six year roadmap was then plotted. This 2014 roadmap identified the preferred waste management options. The sub-title of this Waste Management Plan was “A Resource Management Approach”, which signifies that Malta’s waste management options should be focused on recovering resources from waste and not on destroying them to recover energy. It should be borne in mind that the energy required to manufacture the resources gobbled up by an incinerator is substantially more than that released when they are burned.

Going through this plan, approved by the current administration, one does not find any particular emphasis on incineration. Instead, there is an emphasis on waste separation, recycling and the identification of the related targets, to the extent that the year 2050 was identified by the government as a target by which to achieve zero waste to landfill.

The question to ask is: what went wrong between 2014 (when the targets were identified) and 2017 when the decision to go for incineration was taken? The clear, unequivocal answer is that Wasteserve was not capable of implementing its targets, and, as a result went for the easy solution: incineration. What is the use of publishing strategies of this sort if, when the first difficulties are encountered, they are dumped?

The “bold decision” referred to by Minister Herrera – the adoption of the incineration option – is the result of  management-by-crisis in the waste sector. Obviously, there is little available space for more landfills. However, the only practical and realistic options detailed in the Waste Management Plan were not followed adequately over the years.

The real choice was never between landfill or incineration but on whether we are capable of meeting our own recycling and waste reduction targets. When the waste management plan was drawn up it was viewed as a tool to achieve resource management. This is in line with various EU policies on waste, resource management, circular economy, and various other policy documents issued by the EU Commission.

It is clear from perusing the Technical Report published by Minister Josè Herrera that the incineration options being adopted must be “carried out in parallel with an aggressive campaign to address the targets for recycling, established in various EU Directives and the Waste Management Plan for the Maltese islands.” This is a written confirmation that the incineration option is the cost of an accumulated incompetence in the management of waste in our islands.

From what we have heard in Parliament during the past week it seems that, over the years, the Environment Ministry has been more interested in the employment posts generated by Wasteserve than in honouring recycling targets. The accumulated emails at Wasteserve seem to indicate that this is part of its mission statement!

Of course there is always incineration to burn our accumulated waste problems! It is an easy way out.

Published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 11 March 2018