There are other places, apart from freezers, to stuff our organic waste...

“With the population of individual local councils ranging broadly from 200 to 22,000, contracting for and organising waste collection on such a small-scale limits opportunities for optimisation, and prevents economies of scale

Garbage (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
Garbage (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Sliema mayor John Pillow about the garbage crisis currently affecting that locality; and pretty much everywhere else in Malta and Gozo.

Now: in the course of any interview, there will always be one or two questions/answers that – for various reasons - end up getting omitted from the published article. In this case, there were two.

At one point, Mr Pillow gave me a lengthy explanation of why ‘Airbnbs’ (and the recent proliferation thereof) had contributed massively to the problem. It seems that the management of such facilities usually hire domestic cleaners, every time the apartments are collectively vacated. The result is that the accumulated garbage of anywhere up to 30/40 apartments, tends to all get dumped onto the street, at the same time: which, in many cases, will not be ‘the same time’ as the scheduled garbage collection.

This, Pillow argued, was one of the major causes of the garbage crisis, in Sliema and other areas.

Now: why did I leave this part out, you might be asking? Simple. John Pillow had also given comments to another news report, published in the same edition of MaltaToday. And as this point had already been covered: I felt it would be a case of needless repetition.

I thought I’d just clarify that: because I noticed a few comments criticising the Sliema mayor, for not mentioning ‘Airbnbs’ at all.

As for the second omission: it’s a little more complicated, so bear with me a while.

In that interview, John Pillow also described how Malta’s garbage-collection scheduled had been changed, in 2019, from a local, to a regional level: “before, it was the local council that issued the call for tenders. [...] Now, on the other hand – because it is a national scheme – the tenders are issued by the Department of Contracts; and the contractors are chosen on a regional level (in other words, all six regions have their own contractor).”

It was at this point that I asked him WHY he thought the system had been changed, in the first place. This was his exact reply:

“I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. And I wouldn’t want to say something that will later turn out to be incorrect. But as far as I remember, it had something to do with EU funds. There was some funding, that was tied to having regional councils... but more than that, I can’t tell you.”

Right: I trust you can all see for yourselves, why I chose to leave that part out. If the interviewee himself was admitting that he didn’t really know the answer... there is not much sense in repeating what he said, is there? (And besides: that sort of thing can land both interviewer, and interviewee, into quite a lot of trouble, you know...)

At the same time, however: it irked me to have to omit that question... because I thought (and still think) that it remains the single, most crucial, missing jigsaw-puzzle piece: if we are to truly understand why Malta’s national waste-management strategy has proved to be such an abject, utter failure.

In any case: I’ve done a little digging, since then... and it turns out that John Pillow’s hunch was not entirely ‘unfounded’, after all. Admittedly, it remains unclear whether ‘EU funding’ constitutes the ONLY reason, why a country as small as Malta – which has never had a history of ‘regional division’, to begin with – decided to adopt such an outlandish, and hopeless unsuitable ‘regional’ set-up, for its own national administration.

But two things immediately become clear (even without very much digging, at all).

1) Malta did indeed adopt a ‘Regional Council’, in 2011: by means of which, the islands were (somewhat arbitrarily) divided into five ‘regions’: which became six, in 2021... “in order to ensure a more equitable distribution of local councils within each region (11 on average, with an exception of 14 in Gozo).”

2) There is a lot (but a LOT) of EU-funding that is directly linked to such a system: mostly through the ‘Cohesion Funds’ programmes, which “finance programmes in shared responsibility between the European Commission and NATIONAL and REGIONAL authorities in Member States.” (Translation: ‘Local Councils are NOT eligible. Only Governments, and Regional Councils, need apply...’)

2) Malta has, in fact, benefitted from untold millions of euros’ worth of Cohesion Funds, since 2011. Last June, for instance, a ‘Multi-Material Recovery Facility’ was inaugurated in Ħal Far. We were told that: “The project benefitted from €11.4 million from the Cohesion Fund and will focus on waste such as wood, mattresses, textiles, flat glass, waste electrical and electronic equipment, expanded polystyrene, gypsum and tyres.”

The Commission website also adds that: “In 2014-2020, Malta benefitted from Cohesion Policy funding worth more than €1 billion, including to finance other environment relevant projects...”

And lastly...

3) We can all now not only see the consequence of all these changes, with our own eyes (and smell them, with our own nostrils)... but we can even accurately measure the ‘success’ of Malta’s regionalisation efforts: by simply adding up all the thousands of metric tonnes of festering garbage (unsorted, as a rule), that lie piled up on any random street-corner, anywhere in the country, any of the week.

Almost makes you wonder what we even spent all those billions of euros’ worth of ‘Cohesion Funds’ on, anyway (Because let’s face it: it can’t exactly have been on a ‘COHESIVE’ waste-management strategy, can it? The one we have is falling apart, right before our very eyes!)

Now: in the interests of fairness, here I must include the OFFICIAL justification, for this ill-fated administrative decision. According to the Environment and Resources Authority’s ‘Long Term Waste Management Plan: 2021 – 2030’ administrative change, it was because:

“With the population of individual local councils ranging broadly from 200 to 22,000, contracting for and organising waste collection on such a small-scale limits opportunities for optimisation, and prevents economies of scale. Furthermore, the number of employees in individual local councils is typically very limited (three to four employees at a maximum) which limits the attention which can be given to waste services. These issues can be countered through a move to some form of regionalisation of waste collection...”

So, well... there you have it, I suppose. Nothing whatsoever to do with those “over 1 billion euro’s worth of Cohesion Funds”, in the end. Oh, no! It was all part of a cunning masterplan, you see: to ‘solve all Malta’s garbage-collection problems, once and for all’...

... and you know what? Fine! I’m perfectly happy to go along with that, for now: because it really make all that much of a difference, at the end of the day.

Whether the decision itself was taken because (as usual) Malta was just too darn GREEDY, for its own good; or whether it was really a genuine, well-intentioned plan, on government’s part, to somehow ‘improve the situation’... the results remain equally catastrophic, either way.

And for reasons which emerge from the ERA’s own arguments, please note. In practice, we all know that – before 2011 – the system had been entrusted to local councils, which (whatever their other flaws):

a) knew every single street and alley-way, of their own towns, like the back of their own hands;

b) each had a private waste-collection contractor of its own, attending ONLY to the needs of that one locality; and

c) Despite all their limitations, local councils were somehow flexible enough to introduce things like ‘night-time collection’ (all to be removed, with the advent of ‘regionalisation’).

Now, however? We have a system whereby there are only SIX (6) licensed waste-collection contractors, to cater for all 64 of Malta’s towns and villages... and each one, invididually, is responsible for anywhere up to 11 (14, in Gozo) local councils. (And this, please note, at a time when the population of the country has sky-rocketed to over half a million, over the same time-period.)

Can anyone be surprised, then, when it turns out that those private contractors find that they can’t actually handle the sheer amount of waste, that they are suddenly contracted to ‘collect’? And that – faced with this crisis – the government would respond by (I kid you not!) REDUCING the collection hours... instead of increasing them: as OBVIOUSLY needs to be done?

Oh, well. As always, I’ll leave you to judge the situation, for yourselves.  But one last thing.

There are quite a few other places – apart from my freezer – that I am currently thinking of ‘stuffing’ my own organic waste, one day very soon.

But of course: I’m far too polite, and well-brought up, to mention any of them here...