Explainer | Ticking waste bomb: Why does Malta need an incinerator, and why are farmers angry?

The unforeseen expansion of the Magħtab landfill is a stop-gap measure in a race against time for Malta’s ticking waste-bomb. But farmers are expected to take the brunt. How have we arrived to this?

Why does Malta need an incinerator?

Malta needs a new incinerator by 2026 to combust 40% of Malta’s household waste.  But the current space for landfilling at Magħtab can only accommodate household waste up until till 2021. That’s a five-year gap in the government’s waste plans, which was never previously accounted for. That’s why government has to expand the landfill at Magħtab, otherwise Malta will face a waste emergency with basically nowhere to dump its black bags left on kerbs by households. Malta would risk having waste piling up along the roads as happened some time ago in Naples, Italy.

What are farmers protesting about?

Sources say that although the government has terminated agricultural leases over 250,000sq.m of land (the area of 35 football grounds), the landfill extension will be taking around 50,000sq.m (an area the size of eight football grounds).

But a further 100,000sq.m will be taken up by the incinerator, a multi-recovery facility plant, an organic treatment plant and ‘space for stockpiling’.

The new incinerator alone requires 20,000sq.m of land.

Magħtab already houses the Malta North Mechanical and Biological Treatment Plant, which is similar to the one in Marsaskala, which the government plans relocating to Magħtab, giving respite to the south.

While having all waste facilities in one location would result in more efficient management of these facilities, this comes at the loss of more agricultural land in the north. As often happens the beleaguered agricultural sector will be expected to pay the price.

“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?” Carmel Cacopardo, Green Party chairman

Why is Malta fighting a ‘ticking waste bomb’?

Malta only recently embarked on waste separation after decades of procrastination, as well as population pressures. Environment minister Aaron Farrugias’s choices are already limited by a history of procrastination by previous administrations.

The (Maghtab) Ghallis landfill’s lifetime in 2018 was to be extended by 12 months, increasing empty space in the landfill by 350,000 cubic metres. But this expected to be “filled rapidly”, given current waste deposition rates – an average of 21,500 tonnes per month during 2016.

The Sant Antnin waste recycling plant
The Sant Antnin waste recycling plant

How does Malta lag behind waste targets?

By 2020, Malta should have halved the amount of garbage it was landfilling in 1995. But it has only managed to recycle 5.68% of this waste in 2014.

And the percentage of recycled waste declined from 8.1% in 2012 to 6.8% in 2013 and to 5.7% in 2014 and 6.7% in 2015.

The island is now ranked sixth among the EU countries that generate the most waste per inhabitant. Nearly 90% of all rubbish is sent to landfills, with just eight per cent being recycled.

Malta generates an average of 600kg of waste for each inhabitant as population spiked to over 433,000 in recent years, with 2 million tourists each year.

But the most pressing issue is a consumeristic and wasteful lifestyle, symbolised in part by free mineral water coupons given to shoppers in major supermarkets.

Can Malta reach these targets?

It is not impossible. The Flanders region of Belgium recycles around 75% of its municipal waste, while Austria recycles 70%, and Germany 66%.

As Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson Carmel Cacopardo noted, 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.

The government concurs that a change in mentality is required, one based on the circular economy and where importers and commercial outlets also understand they have a role to play. Yet it remains to be seen whether a government which this government will have the will to use the stick and not just the carrot. And in the meantime, decisions have to be taken to spare Malta from a waste emergency.

Why has it taken this long to reach incineration?

Incineration has always lurked in the corner of waste management plans, with governments waiting for the politically opportune moment to introduce it. As early as 2000, it was decided that the plant be in place by 2010; an earlier energetic push for waste separation by former parliamentary secretary Stanley Zammit in the 1990s was not followed up.

With EU membership, Magħtab stop receiving uncontrolled waste, and replaced by an engineered landfilled located in the vicinity of the former dump.

Incineration, later redefined as a “waste to energy” plant, was recommended again in 2008, for a plant in Marsaxlokk close to the power station. Amid opposition from the Labour-led local council, the government postponed the decision.

With Labour in power, plans were also delayed, opting instead for a feasibility study on exporting waste to be incinerated elsewhere, because the spare capacity for incineration was pushing down fees.

In 2016, José Herrera decided to locate the plant at Ghallis to be ready by 2023: te reason is that Magħtab’s proximity to the sea can supply water for the plant’s cooling system.

What are the problems with this location?

The area located on the eastern side of the Magħtab waste complex, identified as the most appropriate location for being the most distant from large settlements, would have the least impact in terms of ecological footprint and tree cover.

But it is presently used for intensive agriculture.

The footprint for the waste-to-energy plant will occupy around 5,000sq.m. But ancillary facilities required bring the total footprint to circa 20,000sq.m.

And then there are the possible negative impacts from the incinerator’s cooling system will have on the nearby marine environment. The discharge of warm water to the sea could impact the extensive Posidonia meadows in the Bahar ic-Ċagħaq waters, with Wasteserv saying this aspect has to be studied further.

Cooling towers, which reduce the water’s temperature to ambient water temperature before discharge, are deemed to be too intensive in terms of land uptake. Instead seawater intakes and outlets could have the least possible environmental impact.

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