Green gaps in the Budget

The green gaps in the Budget speech cannot be patched up with the millions of euros spread in the pockets of both those in need as well as those who are well off.

Edward Scicluna’s Budget speech last Monday was far too long. Yet in its over 100 pages it missed addressing a number of environmental issues on which different government spokespersons pontificate throughout the rest of the year: confirming that they just pay lip-service to the issues.

The lack of good environmental governance has considerable economic and social impact as is evident to one and all.

While the Budget proposals strengthen the social safety net, it is to be underlined that quality of life is not measured solely in terms of financial metrics. Throwing euros at problems does not lead to any solutions.

The budget speech correctly emphasises the necessity of waste recycling. Unfortunately, the Minister for Finance did not explain how this effort should be integrated into a circular economy, even though the Environment Minister repeatedly boasts of how supposedly the move towards a circular economy is a priority for government. In the entire speech, the circular economy is not mentioned once. Nor does the Economic Survey dwell on the matter or even faintly refer to the matter.

This raises the suspicion that government has lost the plot and does not have any policy ideas on such an important aspect of the economy with its social, economic and environmental effects.

The Budget speech emphasises the energy generation potential from waste incineration which requires large volumes of waste in order to be viable. But the budget speech is silent on how this fits in with the stated commitment to actually reduce the volume of waste.

The government is trying to square the circle; on the one hand it wants to reduce waste but on the other hand it needs more and more waste to make its huge incinerator viable.
The Budget speech also gives the impression that it addresses important aspects which impact the quality of life when in fact offers only half-baked and token solutions.

Among them is the point on water policy. The speech mentions incentives to encourage repairs of existing wells but then it avoids altogether a real and focused effort to address the acute issue of dwellings built without water cisterns, with the consequence that water ends up in the public sewers or flooding our streets.

Developers are let of the hook even when roads are flooded and sewers are overflowing, not to mention the sheer waste of perfectly good water.

The same can be said of the supposed solutions to traffic congestion. The Budget speech refers to the financial incentives available to encourage the use of alternative modes of transport, but here again it ignores the roots of the problem. The government spending of millions of euros for the development of the road infrastructure will only increase traffic congestion, thereby squeezing users of alternative means of transport off the roads.

It is useless to incentivize the purchase of bicycles and pedelecs when there is no investment in adequate infrastructure to ensure that people can commute safely using these important alternative means of transport, which actually help to decrease congestion in our roads.

Over one year ago the Prime Minister had taken a leaf from Alternattiva Demokratika’s electoral manifesto and declared that the government will determine a cut-off date by which new cars will need to be electrically driven or possibly of a hybrid nature.

This declaration had heralded the issue of electrification of transport on our roads addressing two major issues: the quality of air and the contribution of transport emissions to climate change. This, once implemented, would be a substantial contribution to the decarbonisation of the Maltese economy. We are none the wiser on government plans after listening to or reading the budget speech.

Clearly financial parameters are not the only indicators of our quality of life. The green gaps in the budget speech need plugging at the soonest.

published in The Sunday Times of Malta : Sunday 28 October 2018

L-Inċinerazzjoni: l-prezz akkumulat tal-inkompetenza

Il-Ministru Josè Herrera, f’isem il-Gvern, għadu kif ippubblika r-rapport intitolat Technical Report on the setting up of a Waste to Energy Facility in Malta. Qabel ma ntalab dan ir-rapport, il-Gvern kien diġá ħa d-deċiżjoni politika favur l-inċinerazzjoni. Fil-fatt, fid-daħla għar-rapport il-Ministru Herrera jgħid li din id-deċiżjoni kuraġġjuża (bold decision) ittieħdet mill-Gvern f’Lulju 2017.

Jiġifieri r-rapport ma jweġibx il-mistoqsija dwar jekk għandniex immorru għall-inċinerazzjoni: jiffoka dwar kif dan jista’ u għandu jsir.

Ma hemm l-ebda dubju li teżisti t-teknoloġija li tagħmilha possibli li l-impatti tal-inċinerazzjoni jkunu l-minimu possibli . Il-punt, imma, mhux dwar jekk l-inċinerazzjoni hiex possibli li ssir imma jekk hix l-għażla meħtieġa. Fl-opinjoni tiegħi mhix għażla addattata, imma l-alternattivi għaliha jeħtieġu ż-żmien biex ikunu żviluppati. Sfortunatament nafu li tul is-snin ma kien hemm l-ebda volontá politika biex dawn l-alternattivi jkunu żviluppati u jitħallew jaħdmu sewwa.

Il-Pjan għall-Immaniġjar tal-Iskart tal-gżejjer Maltin kien aġġornat fl-2014: dakinhar kien żviluppat pjan biex jitwettaq fuq medda ta’ sitt snin. Dan il-pjan tal-2014 jidentifika l-mod kif għandna nimmaniġjaw l-iskart li niġġeneraw. Fil-fatt jemfasizza li t-triq li għandna nimxu fiha hi dik li nieħdu ħsieb tar-riżorsi. Dan ifisser li l-pajjiż għandu jiffoka biex jirkupra r-riżorsi u mhux jiddistruġġihom biex jiġġenera l-enerġija minnhom. Għandna nżommu f’moħħna li l-enerġija meħtieġa biex dawn ir-riżorsi jinħadmu tiżboq bil-kbir l-enerġija ġġenerata meta dawn jinħarqu. Dan hu dokumentat fi studji li saru u jkunu aġġornati kontinwament.

Meta neżaminaw dan il-pjan li kien approvat mill-amministrazzjoni preżenti, imkien ma nsibu emfasi fuq l-inċinerazzjoni. Pjuttost li hemm emfasi fuq is-separazzjoni tal-iskart, r-riċiklaġġ u diversi miri dwar dan li jridu jintlaħqu. Flimkien ma dan hemm il-mira identifikata mill-Gvern li sas-sena 2050 l-ebda skart ma jintrema iktar fil-miżbliet. Is-sena 2050 hi s-sena ta’ skart żero.

Il-mistoqsija waħidha tiġi: x’mar ħażin bejn l-2014 (meta tfassal il-pjan u ġew identifikati l-miri) u l-2017 meta ittieħdet id-deċiżjoni favur l-inċinerazzjoni? It-tweġiba ċara hi li l-Wasteserve ma kienitx kapaċi tilħaq il-miri u bħala riżultat ta’ dan marret għas-soluzzjoni l-faċli: l-inċinerazzjoni. X’utilitá hemm li nippubblikaw dawn l-istrateġiji jekk ma l-ewwel diffikultá inwarrbuhom u narmuhom?

Id-“deċiżjoni kuraġġuża” li jirreferi għaliha l-Ministru Herrera, l-inċinerazzjoni, hi riżultat ta’ ippjanar imgerfex, ippjanar mil-lum għal-ghada. Hu ovvju li l-ispażju għall-miżbliet huwa limitat. Imma s-soluzzjonijiet prattiċi u realistiċi, imfassla b’mod ċar fil-Pjan għall-Immaniġjar tal-Iskart ġew injorati tul is-snin. L-għażla reali, la kienet u l-anqas ma hi, bejn iktar miżbliet u l-inċinerazzjoni, imma dwar kemm aħna kapaċi nilħqu l-miri tagħna stess dwar ir-riċiklaġġ u t-tnaqqis tal-iskart. Meta l-pjan dwar l-immaniġjar tal-iskart kien imfassal kien meqjus bħala l-għodda addattata biex nimmaniġjaw ir-riżorsi. Dan kollu in konsistenza mal-politika tal-Unjoni Ewropea dwar l-iskart, ir-riżorsi, l-ekonomija ċirkulari u dokumenti politiċi oħra tal-Kummissjoni Ewropea.

Mir-rapport tekniku li ppubblika l-Ministru Josè Herrera hu ċar li flimkien mal-inċinerazzjoni ser ikun hemm bżonn ukoll ta’ “kampanja aggressiva biex ikunu indirizzati l-miri ta’ riċiklaġġ stabiliti fid-Direttivi diversi tal-UE kif ukoll fil-Pjan għall-Imanigġjar tal-iskart tal-Gżejjer Maltin.” Din hi konferma bil-miktub li l-inċinerazzjoni hi l-prezz li rridu nħallsu għall-inkompetenza akkumulata fl-immaniġjar tal-iskart fil-gżejjer tagħna.

Imma minn dak li smajna fil-Parlament matul il-ġimgħa li għaddiet jidher li tul is-snin, il-Ministeru tal-Ambjent iktar kien interessat fl-impiegi ġġenerati mill-Wasteserve milli li jkunu onorati l-miri tar-riċiklaġġ. L-emails li ġemmgħet il-Wasteserve qieshom jindikaw li dan hu l-iktar importanti fost il-ħidmiet tagħha!

Ovvjament dejjem hemm l-inċinerazzjoni biex taħraq il-problemi akkumulati tal-iskart. Għax dik hi s-soluzzjoni l-faċli.

 

Ippubblikat f’Illum : Il-Ħadd 11 ta’ Marzu 2018

 

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

Karmenu Vella and the plastic tax

Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment, is enthusiastic about the possibility of a plastic tax being introduced throughout the EU. In his view, this tax – if properly designed – could be one of a number of tools for delivering environmental objectives as well as providing budgetary income. Planet Earth is drowning in plastic.

Vella made these comments in an interview published on Euractive last week on the subject of the EU’s new plastics strategy.

We have been there before and maybe it is time to consider the matter once more in Malta. Some 10 years ago in Malta we had an environmental tax which was known as an “eco-contribution”. It was a valid proposal, badly designed and arrogantly implemented. The lessons learnt from that exercise could, if properly analysed, lead to the development of effective policy tools addressing the generation of waste in the Maltese islands. Policies should be well thought out and not developed as a result of panic – as is clearly the case with the current government incineration proposal.

Ten years ago, the eco-contribution tried to address the generation of plastic waste including “single-use plastic”. This is one of the primary targets of the EU plastics strategy published on the 16 January.

Its title is very clear : A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. Plastic is ubiquitous: it is present in all aspects of our economy and our daily lives. The plastics we use must be such that they can be re-used rather than thrown away. It is an important resource which can be put to good use rather than thrown away or incinerated.

It is for this purpose that the newly-published plastics strategy lays the foundations for a new plastics economy where “the design and production of plastics and plastic products fully respect reuse, repair and recycling needs and more sustainable materials are developed and promoted”.

A plastics economy would definitely not send “waste plastic” to the incinerator to be converted into energy. Even Malta’s latest version of the Waste Management Strategy, approved in 2014, emphasises that our approach to waste must be one based on the sustainable use of resources and, in line with the EU waste hierarchy, gives priority to recycling over incineration.

In fairness, it has to be said that our government’s advisors on incineration have already sounded the alarm. Apparently this has not, as yet, been understood – either by the government or by the Opposition. It would be pertinent to point out that the Special Assignment Report by Jaspers dated 23 February 2017 on a Waste to Energy (WtE) project in Malta specifically emphasises that “it would be difficult to justify a WtE facility that is not based on low waste growth and high recycling”.

Rather than talking about incineration, it is about time we discussed in detail the implementation of our Waste Management Strategy in order to identify why it has not to date succeeded in increasing Malta’s recycling rates. What initiatives need to be taken in order that the waste generated in Malta is minimised?

Malta’s waste management strategy, now complemented by the EU’s Plastic Strategy, is definitely a much better roadmap than the documentation encouraging incineration. And what about our commitments to encourage a “circular economy” : gone with the wind?

Karmenu Vella’s plastics tax is food for thought.

It is about time that Wasteserve is managed properly. As a first step, it should stick to its brief and seek to implement carefully the Waste Management Strategy, which establishes the year 2050 as the year when we should achieve a “Zero Waste Target”. This target will not be achieved through the use of incineration but through a policy encouraging waste minimisation as well as recycling.

This is not just a task for the Minister responsible for the Environment. The Minister responsible for the Development of the Economy also has a very important role to play in achieving a successful implementation of the Waste Management Strategy.

Unfortunately he is apparently completely absent.

Zero waste municipalities in Europe are continuously indicating that an 80 to 90 per cent recycling rate is achievable. The fact that Malta’s recycling rate is, at best, estimated at around 12 per cent, is a clear indication that there is room for substantial improvement – with or without Karmenu Vella’s plastics tax.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 28 January 2018

 

Towards a zero waste target

 

The linear model of our economy follows a take-make-use-waste path as a result of which we extract resources from the earth which we use and subsequently throw away. In contrast to this cradle-to-grave trajectory, the circular economy seeks cyclical sustainability.

In a circular economy, the management of waste is paramount.  It seeks to retain the resources used in our products in the economic loop as it is considered that they can be re-used to form other products. William McDonough and Michael Braungart describe this as a cradle-to-cradle process in their seminal book Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the way we make things. This is in contrast to the throw-away society which follows a cradle-to-grave path.

This is not only makes environmental sense, it also makes economic sense. Malta’s Waste Management Plan for the period 2014-2020 tentatively points in this direction by establishing a zero waste target that is to be achieved by 2050. Thirty-three years may seem to be too far away but, in reality, it may be just enough to change our mindset. A lot of hard work is involved but, at the end of the day, it will also be rewarding.

It involves the application of what is known as the waste hierarchy to different waste streams. Waste minimisation or prevention is always the preferred option. Ideally we should aim to prevent the generation of waste and in a number of cases this can easily be done. For example, we can prevent the generation of a substantial portion of organic waste by giving more thought to the food intake in our homes. We can also reduce the amount of food packaging by opting for more fresh food which is generally local.

Obviously, most of us have very little time to think about the consequences of our large number of small decisions which end up generating a lot of waste. Convenience generally wins the day, as we often opt for packaged and processed food. As a result, we not only generate avoidable waste but also end up eating less healthy food.

A pilot project related to organic waste is currently under way in 8 localities in Malta and Gozo. It has been going on for some time and although information as to the manner in which the localities involved have reacted is not publicly available, it is known through the grapevine that this has been varied but is improving.

Collecting the organic waste part of domestic waste, if carried out successfully, may well reduce the amount going to landfill by around 50 percent. There is also an added benefit: when the organic part of our waste is processed in a waste recycling plant, the resulting gases are used to produce electricity instead of adding to greenhouse gas emissions. This is surely a win-win situation.

Reducing 50 percent of our waste through the responsible management of just one part of it is very good policy. However, this requires much more investment in environmental education in our localities. Wasteserve, being ultimately responsible for waste management in the Maltese Islands, has taken a lot of initiatives in this respect, but much more needs to be done.  It is never enough.

Waste is a collection of discarded resources and realising the value that we throw away is, in reality, what the circular economy is all about – hence the target of a zero waste society.

published in The Independent on Sunday : 29 January 2017