Moving towards a ‘circular economy’ | Aaron Farrugia

New environment minister AARON FARRUGIA has inherited a portfolio beset by the vested interests of powerful lobbies. Will his enthusiasm be enough to make up for decades of procrastination in the face of difficult decisions?

You have just announced a waste-to-energy plant to cater for 40% of non-recyclable waste. Is the extension of the landfill a recognition that reality caught up with us sooner than previously expected? And is 2023 a realistic time-frame?

There is no landfill extension. The announced plan does not include new landfilling outside the current footprint. All the new land uptake is devoted to state-of-the-art facilities that will allow the country to change course from predominant reliance on landfilling to a circular economy context.

It’s not about ‘reality catching up’ either, but more about implementing a vision: we don’t want to waste the opportunity to create precious resources, and we aim to do our best to avoid a scenario in which we would need to expropriate land for landfilling in the future. What we announced is a holistic plan that will valorise main waste streams to their full potential, enable us to reach our environmental and recycling targets, and improve the overall environment in the area, rehabilitate former landfills to give back to the public, and improve our quality of life on the islands.

The new plants will be able to treat dry recyclables; such as paper, plastics, and metal, organic wastes which will be converted into energy and agricultural compost, and a waste-to-energy plant that will turn the remaining non-usable waste into energy.

No, 2023 is not a realistic timeframe. Government always said that it would take six years from the commissioning of the project. Therefore, our time-frame is closer to 2026. We are determined to deliver a high-quality project within the shortest possible time to ensure that Malta starts benefitting from this investment and that landfilling is limited as much as possible.

Why is such a large amount of land required for the incinerator and other plants that will be centralised at Maghtab? And how much land will go for landfill expansion?

Once again, the plan does not include new land for landfill expansion. The land will be devoted to the facilities, access roads, and adjoining landscaping. Although the plant on its own could take a smaller land uptake, such a plant requires ancillary facilities that are vital to ensure a very high standard operation and that the environment is safeguarded in the best possible manner. For instance, the waste-to-energy plant includes ancillary facilities related to pollution abatement, cooling, and other supporting functions.   The total required uptake of land is 82,000sq.m – a drastic reduction from the previously proposed amount of 279,000sq.m.

Malta fares miserably on landfill and waste recovery targets. By 2020, Malta should have halved the amount of garbage it was landfilling in 1995.  Is this a legacy of procrastination in a sector where everyone was afraid of taking hard decisions?

I acknowledge that the situation is becoming critical. But the plan that was announced attests to this administration’s determination to move away from landfilling to a circular economy approach. Hand-in-hand with this capital investment, there will be a number of initiatives led by WasteServ and the Ministry, including an educational campaign which will seek to venture into a new era of environmental ambition.

Don’t you think it is also time to recognize that some waste practices have to be penalised while others incentivised, because of the risk that incineration might lessen the urgency for more drastic action?

An infrastructural setup alone, without a concrete commitment by all the involved stakeholders, will not be sufficient. We are sure that our ambition will be matched and that the required improvements will be attained across the board. While direct action is currently being considered, one should also be sensitive to the fact that penalties can have social repercussions.

One of Labour’s first steps in 2013 was to de-merge MEPA and set up a separate ERA. Now you are minister responsible for both environment and planning. Was the demerger a mistake?

Prime Minister Robert Abela made the right decision, and at the right time, to put the responsibilities of planning and environment back under the same Ministerial portfolio. Similarly, the demerger was the right move at the time, as well. But what happened was that the pace with which the planning sector was developing in our country was not on par with that of environmental regulation – and was therefore unsustainable. The time has come to balance this out.

Strangely, hunting was kept out of your portfolio and handed to the Gozo Minister, who is a hunter himself. Is this not a glaring conflict of interest? And did you disagree with opening the spring hunting season despite the COVID emergency, which capriciously allocates resources to supervise hunters (when the same excuse is used not to save lives at sea)?

The Gozo Minister was already parliamentary secretary in a ministry responsible for hunting. Apart from this, I think that the environment, climate change, waste, and planning make for an extensive portfolio.

In the current circumstances, the decision to open the spring hunting season was taken collectively by Cabinet for a number of reasons, mainly due to the fact that it concerned a number of factors apart from hunting per se - such as health and enforcement.

If the PA and ERA have equal powers, should ERA not have the power to veto decisions taken by the PA?

I don’t think that it should. It was a courageous decision to place both the PA and ERA under the same Ministry, and it will be the policies that will create a balance between the two. In fact, new policies within both entities are being finalised as we speak. This is what intelligent and balanced planning stands for.

The PA’s controversial rural policy was placed under review. Judging by the foot-dragging on the reviewed fuel station policy, this might take years: what are you waiting for on both reviews?

In my first few days as environment and planning minister I asked for clear deadlines for the review of the SPED, rural policy, and fuel stations policy among other things. My request was respected, and in the coming days we will begin seeing the results of these decisions.

Will the appeals on refusals of fuel stations be decided on the basis of the new or discarded policy?

I am informed that legally, the appeals tribunal needs to decide on the basis of the policy which was in place at the time of refusal.

You removed Elizabeth Ellul from the planning commission on ODZ projects – did you doubt her integrity? Why not launch a full investigation instead of playing musical chairs?

Members of commissions have expiry dates, in the sense that they are appointed per term. The appointments and changes that I made in the commissions, and similarly any boards, were based on my own vision for the sector.  

Ellul’s husband was an architect who worked for major developers like Joseph Portelli whose applications ended up on Ellul’s desk. Will you immediately introduce a new code of conduct to prevent this from happening ever again?

Yes. It is a work in progress.

You talk a lot about greening urban spaces. But planning policies allow developers to build a depth of 15m inside many urban open spaces and gardens… are these policies under review?

All planning policies are automatically under review through the SPED review. Naturally, this review is a comprehensive one which takes into consideration a number of factors including the economic, social, and environmental - and would therefore need time.

The PM says construction will be vital in the post-COVID recovery: do you agree that Malta should press on the accelerator to kickstart the economy? You also have spoken of the ‘balance’ between construction and environment, yet this always turns out to be greenwash for a pro developers’ bias…

Currently we are facing a public health crisis. But this crisis will have repercussions that go beyond health, including long-term social and economic impacts. The construction industry makes up for almost 4% of our country’s economy. It employs thousands of people. It is indeed one of our strongest industries as well as the work ethic of our people that will help us recover from this crisis.

I think that the Prime Minister was correct to say that construction will be vital post-COVID – and this is the same Prime Minister who brought planning and the environment back under the same Ministry. This is testament that Government is aiming towards a stable balance between construction and green projects, economic strength and wellbeing. I believe that the public, including environmental NGOs with whom I converse regularly, are not against construction per se: we are all envisioning construction and planning which is intelligent and sustainable.

Don’t you think it’s unacceptable for a 70-year-old on lockdown to live near unabated construction and excavation from 7am to 7pm?

Although construction does not fall under the remit of my ministry, the Malta Developers Association told me about their wish to have shorter hours. My answer was that they don’t need Government to do this. 

A new online hearing system at the PA will probably limit objectors uncomfortable with protesting via livestream. Don’t you think the digital divide is benefiting developers here? And if schools and the law courts shut down, why could we not afford to postpone the PA hearings?

We are obviously not in the ideal situation right now, but we are trying to do our best in the circumstances. Various sectors across Malta were quick to make use of the digital systems that we have at our disposal in order for life to carry on, including economic activity and public life. We need to be realistic.

I think the Planning Authority found a way to ensure that the planning processes continue, without affecting people’s rights. I would say that it would be better to go back to the way we were before – but the truth is that post-COVID-19, we could perhaps look at a hybrid system which would be even more inclusive and would allow persons to participate in the process even if they could not physically attend.

I am proud to say that other countries followed our example and their planning committees have also moved towards the digital era. Of course, we have had to adapt and learn as we go along. In the case of video conferencing for PA’s meetings, the Authority established a system with which persons who do not have access to an internet device at home could still participate in a private room at the PA offices. So far, the outcomes have been positive and the meetings have been going very well.

On Monday the EPRT act will be amended so that meetings and appeals will also begin to be heard in this way.

I think this was a step in the right direction, and a balance could indeed be found.