Malta needs to clean its act up... fast

In a country where so many people depend on safe pedestrian management for their daily needs, the sheer number of unsafe walkways amounts to no less than a dereliction of duty by the State

It might not be the most glamorous topic to discuss, at the start of a New Year: but Malta’s waste disposal problem represents a ticking time-bomb, that threatens to (literally) bury the entire country under garbage, unless something is done about it with urgency.

Much of this problem is already visible to the naked eye, with complaints now pouring in from all parts of Malta and Gozo, about the sheer amount of litter accumulating on pavements; sometimes, resulting in obstacles that impede people’s mobility (or even endanger their health and safety).

The more urgent part, however, remains largely shielded from public view. With a population that has spiked to over 500,000 in recent years (not counting an additional 2 million tourists annually), Malta now generates an average of 600kg of waste a year, for each inhabitant.

Recent statistics show that nearly 90% of all rubbish is sent to landfills, with just eight per cent being recycled. Moreover, the latest Environmental Implementation Review (EIR) – issued by the European Commission last September – also found that the percentage of landfilled waste has actually increased, rather than decreased, over the past few years.

The island is in fact now ranked sixth among the EU countries that generate the most waste per inhabitant; and in comparison with the EU averages for recycling and landfilling rates, Malta has made very limited progress over the past decade.

Worse still, it is an open secret that there is simply not enough treatment capacity in the country to treat all the landfilled waste.

It was for this reason that the government had to expand the landfill at Magħtab in 2020; and also, why Malta will still need to invest in an incinerator by 2026 at the earliest. (Otherwise, the country will certainly face a waste emergency of the kind experienced some time ago in Naples, Italy: with basically nowhere to dump black bags left on kerbs by households; and garbage left to pile up on roadsides in every town and village.)

But both the Magħtab expansion, and the future incinerator, can only be viewed as short-term solutions. Malta’s waste disposal problem goes well beyond the amount of garbage generated by changing demographics. As with so many other issues, lack of discipline among the public – and insufficient enforcement by the authorities – are also factors that require attention.

Above all, however, the Maltese government needs to draw up more effective policies to address the problem at source. Unfortunately, its recent efforts have not been particularly successful.

The BCRS reverse vending machines, for instance, were originally intended to reduce the quantity of plastic waste. The scheme itself proved logistically difficult to use – especially by vulnerable categories, such as the elderly – and in some instances, we now have a situation also where BCRS machines are also becoming sites of excess plastic that is not recyclable.

To this problem, we must also add the undeniable fact that Malta and Gozo have simply become dirtier, and shabbier, in recent years.

As Malta heads into another round of local elections come 2024, a reminder of previous pledges for ‘a leap in the quality of cleanliness’ – as advanced by the Labour Party back in 2015 – will certainly be met with mockery, by residents who are often unable to negotiate their own public walkways.

Garbage and urban debris in some of Malta’s most populated towns and seaside localities have already become a regular nuisance in the hot summer months. Earlier in 2022, MaltaToday had reported on the threat posed by unhygienic street furniture to the visually-impaired: with blind people facing obstacles when walking daily through the streets, especially when garbage is left out on pavements, or animal excrement is left undisposed.

Definitely, there must be more knowledge and awareness about such situations: which might seem trivial to some, but are nonetheless great obstacles – possibly even health and safety hazards – to the elderly, the visually-impaired, parents walking with pushchairs, and small children (among other ‘accident-prone’ categories).

Michael Micallef, who runs the Beyond Light project (in aid of the visually-impaired), said that even guide dogs are sometimes victims of unsafe and unhygienic pedestrian areas.

Meanwhile, trash piling up on roadsides and pedestrian areas over the weekends have become visible problems in tourist areas such as Sliema, St Julian’s, as well as northern towns like St Paul’s Bay, Bugibba and Qawra. Mounds of rubbish around the main thoroughfares not only exasperate residents, for all the obvious (visual and olfactory) reasons: but they also give rise to concerns about vermin infestation.

Simply put: the growing waste-disposal problem is already impinging on the country’s quality of life – and our infrastructure is already insufficient to meet our present needs – as things stand today (let alone, when Malta’s population reaches 700,000 by 2050, as predicted...)

Besides: in a country where so many people depend on safe pedestrian management for their daily needs, the sheer number of unsafe walkways, in every town and village, amounts to no less than a dereliction of duty by the State.

It is therefore time for the State to rectify this shortcoming; and to start cleaning this country’s act up, once and for all.