Reducing waste generation protects agricultural land

Birżebbuġa residents complain about the noise generated by the Freeport. Floriana residents complain about the impact of cruise liners on their lives through depleted air quality, as well as acoustic pollution. The residents of Gudja, Luqa, Kirkop and other villages in the area are affected by the operations of our only airport. The Sant’ Antnin Waste Treatment Plant has never been considered a good neighbour by the residents of Marsaskala.

Understandably, no one wants a landfill on his doorstep. In addition to bad neighbourliness, matters are even worse if the projected landfill (or a waste management facility) takes over your means of making a living. This is the case that the Magħtab residents and farmers are emphasising.

The Magħtab landfill has been in operation since 1977, when use of the landfill at Wied Fulija (Iż-Żurrieq) was being scaled down.

The Magħtab farmers have been at the receiving end for quite some time. One particular farmer, whom I met last week, told me – way back in 1975 – his family was dispossessed of 75 tumoli (over 84,000 square metres) of agricultural land that was taken over for the then proposed landfill. Today, another 25 tumoli (around 28,000 square metres) of agricultural land worked by the same family will also be taken up.

The point at issue is whether the proposed take-over of 254,144 square metres of additional land, mostly agricultural, to be absorbed into the Magħtab landfill complex, can be avoided, in whole or in part.

Futhermore, is it fair – or even ethical – for one section of the population to be expected to bear the brunt of impacts to which each one of us contributes? Should the burden not be spread, thereby ensuring that all communities shoulder part of it?

Where do we draw the line?

Limiting myself to the current issues of waste management, the problems to be faced have to be first resolved on the drawing board, on the basis of the policy options available. Subsequently, we need to ensure that the established targets are scrupulously observed in practice.

Waste minimisation, waste separation and waste recycling are three basic waste-management tools which should be used properly. Adequate use of such tools would reduce substantially the amount of waste going to landfill. As a result, if properly utilised, these policy tools would lead to a substantially reduced demand for land to be used as a landfill. This is the objective of the EU acquis which we ought to have followed since 2004 on EU accession.

A policy of waste minimisation involves a planned reduction of waste generation and initiatives relating to electronic government are a positive step in this direction. Paperless administrative processes reduce paper waste, for example, although sometimes they just shift the generation of the waste from one user to another. Reducing packaging waste also contributes substantially to waste minimisation. Even in our homes we can ensure that we minimise the waste that we generate: educational campaigns play a much important role in this respect.

There is, however, a contradiction in government policy in this regard: the decision to develop an incinerator requires a steady flow of waste to feed it. While we should be encouraging waste minimisation, the incinerator would require the opposite, waste maximisation – otherwise it would have to go on a diet.

Waste separation at source involves identifying and separating different streams of waste. This facilitates dealing appropriately with such waste. The separation of organic waste, for example, makes it possible to treat such waste in an appropriate digestor, thereby producing electricity and compost. Organic waste accounts for approximately 50 per cent of domestic waste. It does, however, account for a much larger portion of the waste generated by the catering industry.

Having a separate collection of organic waste has, according to Wastserv, resulted in a substantial amount of organic waste being collected from domestic households: 27,000 tonnes during 2019. This has the potential to grow to around 70,000 tonnes annually, if every household makes an effort in the separate disposal of organic waste. Wasteserv, however, does not provide data regarding organic waste collected from catering establishments, thereby indicating that this is not of any significance. Nor is it clear whether the unprocessed organic waste seen mixed with other general waste at the Magħtab landfill is included in Wasteserv’s published statistics on collected organic waste.

The separate collection of organic waste not only contributes to a substantial reduction in the amount of waste going to landfill: it also contributes to a reduction in released greenhouse gases, thereby reducing Malta’s contribution to climate change.

Waste recycling in Malta is still far behind what is expected. Malta’s recycling rates are still very low, except in the area of packaging waste. Adequate recycling would substantially reduce the amount of waste going to landfills, as a result reducing the uptake by Wasteserv of agricultural land for use for this purpose.

We can only help our farmers keep their agricultural land if we reduce – and eventually eliminate – waste going to landfills. We should remember that the current Waste Management Strategy for the Maltese Islands has targeted the attainment of a zero-waste objective by 2050.

Our performance to date is not encouraging.

Published in the Independent on Sunday : 1 March 2020

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