Sliema has a garbage problem? Rubbish! | John Pillow

Sliema mayor JOHN PILLOW puts up a stout defence of his controversial ‘name-and-shame’ litter campaign. If people are not ashamed to dump their garbage on the streets... he’s not ashamed to ‘out’ them, either

Sliema mayor John Pillow. (Photo: James Bianchi / Mediatoday)
Sliema mayor John Pillow. (Photo: James Bianchi / Mediatoday)

Recently, you embarked on a ‘name-and-shame’ campaign, to expose people who disregard garbage-collection regulations. This was a reaction to Sliema’s widely-known litter problem... but before talking about the campaign itself, let’s talk about how dirty Sliema has actually become. Overflowing garbage bags are (let’s face it) a common sight in most Maltese towns... but my impression is that the problem is noticeably worse in Sliema, than most other places. Do you agree? And why do you think Sliema is so badly affected by this problem, anyway?    

The reality is that garbage collection has always been a bit of a problem, in Sliema. And to be fair, the situation has actually improved, in some respects, from how it used to be in the past.  

For example: I am 62 years old; and I remember a time when we didn’t even have ‘garbage bags’, at all... nor even ‘garbage trucks’, for that matter.  Back in those days, household rubbish was simply thrown into a large, zinc ‘kalderun’ [cauldron], lined with newspapers - I remember my mother washing ours, after it had been emptied – and the truck that came to collect it, wasn’t what we nowadays call a ‘Scammel’ (incorrectly, by the way: because that’s actually the name of the manufacturer, not the vehicle itself). It was just a regular old ‘box-truck’; and the rubbish would be emptied into the back.... where a man wearing boots would keep stomping on it, to prevent it from overflowing. 

So in a sense, we’ve made a lot of progress, since then. But what has happened recently, is that the collection of mixed-waste – the black bags, to be clear – has been reduced from three times a week, to only twice a week. Meanwhile, Sliema also used to have an extra mixed-waste collection day: on Sundays, between the end of June and the end of September. We can no longer do this, however; as it doesn’t fit into the new, national schedule.    

Another thing that has changed, in the meantime, is the population of Sliema. Recent NSO statistics reveal that Sliema now has the highest population density, of any town in the Maltese islands.  And this has made a huge difference.  

Before, Sliema was made up mostly of town-houses – with each household producing only one bag of waste, apiece. Today, on the other hand, many of those houses have been replaced with apartment blocks; and not only do they produce the equivalent of seven, eight or nine households’ worth of garbage... but they have nowhere to store it all, either. Unlike the old townhouses, they don’t have an internal yard (bitħa).  

This raises a question: is the Planning Authority doing its job properly?  Because if it were up to me, all apartment blocks would have to have what is known as a ‘swill-room’ – a storage space for garbage, for days when there is no collection. To be fair: some of the apartment blocks do have this; but most don’t. 

Above all, however, since the new garbage collection scheme has been in force... most people are just disregarding it completely. They just don’t give a damn (jitmellħu); and they’re literally throwing everything out, on any day of the week, as they please.... 

This brings us to your ‘name-and-shame’ campaign. While your frustration is certainly understandable, some people are questioning your methods (which include opening up garbage bags, and identifying the culprit through receipts, and other discarded trash). How do you respond to complaints that what you are doing, may amount to a violation of the ‘right to privacy’? 

Let me start with this. I love Sliema. Even back when I was still just a councillor, I always worked hard to improve things in my home-town. And just to give you an idea of how much Sliema means to me... when I became mayor, I gave up my job to be able to dedicate myself 100% to the role. And it wasn’t easy. I gave up a good wage... and all the perks: including a mobile; a company car; petrol expenses; insurance... I lost it all.  Now, as mayor, I have an allowance of €1,522 a month: and of that, €710 go to pay the rent.  

Now, why am I telling you all this? Because the way I see it: if you really love your hometown, you have to be ready to make sacrifices for it. I don’t want to make myself out to be some kind of ‘hero’, or anything; but to me, ‘going through garbage bags’ is also a sacrifice, in a way. It’s certainly not something I do for ‘fun’. It’s something I feel I have to do, because the situation is now getting out of hand.  

And I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a very long time. It’s not just now, that I intervene whenever I see someone taking out the garbage on the wrong day. I’ve been doing this for years... 

Have people been complaining about it for years, too? 

The ones I caught? Definitely! They’d say things like... ‘but there’s already a garbage bag over there!’ And I’d say, ‘So what? It doesn’t mean you can just dump yours there, too!’ ‘But why me?’ ‘Because you’re the one that I caught...’; and so on, and so forth.  

But the point is: I’ve been doing this for a very long time... and the situation has only got worse, since then. So now I feel it’s time to go a step further, and publicly ‘name and shame’ offenders; instead of just catching them in the act. 

As for the ‘right to privacy’ complaint... it doesn’t bother me, to be honest. First of all, I’m not the type to be bothered about ‘getting my hands dirty’. When there was a problem with the public toilet in the Independence Garden – the cesspit was blocked, and there was sewage everywhere – I had no problem going down on my hands and knees, with my head right next to the floor... 

Hang on: but the issue here is not whether you yourself are in any way ‘bothered’, by what you are doing. It’s whether you have the RIGHT to actually do it, or not... 

[Shrugs] Do people have the ‘right’, to take out their rubbish – sometimes, entire boxes full of garbage bags: including organic waste, which goes on to cause a stink, and attract rats, etc. – and just dump it out on the pavement? Does it ‘bother’ those people, that their mountains of rubbish are now blocking the pavement for everyone else? And are they ‘ashamed’, that their names are in those piles of rubbish, anyway? Because that’s where I get all those names from, you know. They’re taken from all the rubbish that they themselves were not ‘ashamed’ to dump out on the street, illegally, in the first place. 

So the way I see it: if those people were not ashamed to litter the pavement, like that... I’m not going to be ashamed of ‘naming and shaming’ them. Maybe I’m wrong, to think that way; but that’s how I see it, myself. 


Fair enough. But there is another dimension to all this. You yourself stated, earlier, that garbage collection for mixed-waste has been reduced: from three times a week, to only two... 

Yes: and what I forgot to mention was that next year, it will be reduced to only once a week. Can you imagine...? 

OK: but that also means that some people might not have any real choice, but to take out their rubbish on the wrong day. There are people whose work hours don’t permit them to be at home, on the two (or one) days of the week that the garbage truck actually passes. So who is really to blame, here? The people, for disregarding regulations... or the authorities, for not providing a more reliable, functional refuse-collection service?  

Let me answer you this way. We [the Sliema council] were among the first, in this country, to introduce garbage-collection in the evening. We did this, because it was impossible to collect in the morning. With all the construction work going on, streets would be blocked by cranes, lifters, trucks, etc. So much so, that – on days reserved for glass collection: i.e., the first and third Friday of the month – we don’t issue any permits at all, to block streets.  

In any case: we introduced evening collections, starting at eight o’ clock. And we wanted it at eight, so that people who have shops, for example, would have all the necessary time to get back home.  

But the contractor, at the time, had a problem. When he went to WasteServ to deliver all the garbage, at the end of the shift... he would find the gates shut, because WasteServ closes in the evenings. So we had to, very reluctantly, change the time to seven.  

Now, we are asking the Regional Council, to ask WasteServ – because that’s how it [the chain of command] works – to reschedule evening collection, back to starting at eight o’ clock. (Personally, I would prefer eight-thirty). And we’ve even sent them reminders... 

Have you got any answer yet? 

So far, all we’ve been told is: ‘No, because otherwise we’d would have to pay people overtime...’  

[Pause] Am I to understand, then, that we are ‘penny-pinching’ [nitqammlu], just to save a little money on overtime? And meanwhile, we’re all perfectly content to just sit back and watch, while our streets are being turned into giant garbage dumps? Seriously, though: are we only worried about ‘pounds, shillings, and pence’?’ Is that all we’re interested in; and nothing else...? 

Come on! What is WasteServ doing, to try and help us solve this problem?  

Meanwhile, there is another issue. One of the reasons I want a quick answer from WasteServ, is that the public needs to be informed about any changes to the schedule. We need to organise an educational campaign. We need to print flyers, and informational leaflets. And we need to distribute them; by posting them in letter-boxes, or sticking them up in the common parts of apartment blocks... 

Now: we’d be happy to do all this, ourselves – in fact, we’ve done it before: every time the schedule changed – but... I don’t want to enter into all that expense, when the decision hasn’t actually been taken, yet.  

But is it really the job of a local council to even do all that, in the first place? My understanding is that garbage collection is no longer the responsibility of local councils. Instead, it is now the remit of the Regional Councils... is that correct? 

Yes: in the sense that, before, it was the local council that issued the call for tenders. And it would be won by a contractor, according to all the usual criteria: lowest bidder, meeting all the contract conditions, etc. 

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). Meanwhile, the local councils were not even involved, at tendering-stage, to put forward our complaints, or suggestions, as representatives of the residents. 

With all due respect, to the residents of other towns: you can’t put Sliema in the same basket as a town like, say, ‘Hal Safi’.  You just can’t...  

One major difference between Sliema and other towns, is the sheer concentration of hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops, etc. Your campaign targets businesses, just as much as residents... so how much of an impact do you think Sliema’s tourism/retail industry is having, on the litter problem? 

Well... I don’t want to be the one to ‘put everyone in the same basket’, myself. The reality is that the number of restaurants and cafes has increased a lot, in recent years... but some of those establishments ARE responsible, you know. I’ve seen cases myself, where – for instance – a maid who had just cleaned the flats of an entire apartment block, would take all the garbage bags outside... but then, load them into a van that was sent by the same agency.  

So these things do happen; and the same goes for residents, too. OK, maybe I said ‘people don’t give a damn’, a little earlier... but to be fair, there ARE some people who do. 

But yes, there’s certainly a problem. Let’s take restaurants, for instance: in Sliema, we have a bye-law, that you cannot keep any skips outside. But if you go down to the Sliema ferries, right now, you will see that there are skips overflowing with garbage – unsorted, unseparated garbage – almost everywhere you look.  

Where is the ‘separation of waste’? Does separation exist, only for households and individuals? What about restaurants, and shops? Because we can all see, with our own eyes, that there is no waste-separation taking place.  

And yet, by law, those establishments have to separate their waste... and also, store it inside their own premises. It is supposed to be in their contract, that all establishments have to have an internal space where to keep garbage, until collection-time. But everyone ignores it; and everyone just dumps everything outside. 

This has to stop. If you own a restaurant in Sliema... sorry, but you have to find a way of making space for all the trash you’re generating. Reduce the number of your tables. Move things around. Partition your raised platform, and put your skip there. You can do whatever you like; I don’t even care what you do, myself. 

But the one you can’t do, is just ignore a legal obligation, to store your garbage inside... like it just doesn’t exist, at all