by Adrian Gibbs9 minute read
When visiting an old city with a rich and troubled past it is hard not to get swept up in the grand, complex and often frightening history that has shaped the landscape, culture and administration. Fortunately, most guidebooks include an abridged history to introduce the grand names and great episodes of the past. It is, however, less easy to find a chronicle of a country’s waste management systems. This is perhaps a shame, as the same forces of self-interest, random chance, ‘good ideas at the time’ and inertia can surely be seen at play in the establishment of institutional waste systems as in the formation of cultural, political and architectural norms.
A recent working trip to Malta gave me the opportunity to explore an island that I have long been interested to visit. I had heard the stories of its pivotal role in WW2, and of how the most bombed place on the planet has since regained its peace, identity and exquisite charm. As well as allowing a brief tour around the main island, my time there offered much that was unexpected (beginning with an uncommon rain shower that greeted me as I stepped from the aircraft). It was not long before I was struck by Malta’s distinctive waste management practices.
Continuing the journey from the airport by bus – hoping that this switch to public transport might avoid too much additional pressure on the CO2 budget – I looked for signs of waste: the tell-tale missed collection or fly tipped sack in a roadside gutter. In fact what I saw was a little less ordinary:
- Wind-blown litter gathering unreclaimably in a wide gully, made completely inaccessible by some questionable building decisions.
- A complete wardrobe of clothes strewn across a pavement, unmistakably jettisoned from a third storey window – perhaps evidence of a relationship as rocky as the landscape.
I saw little trace of recycling facilities until eventually, during a walk around the capital, Valetta, I happened upon a set of bring banks gazing out over the harbour, thankfully the only sentries now needed to keep watch from the great curtain walls and bastions of the fortified city.
Another group of sentinels conspicuously absent from the island were the wheeled bins that stand guard at so many British thresholds. It was only later, when I learnt that residual waste collection was a daily operation – as opposed to the weekly or fortnightly affair to which we are accustomed – that this absence made sense.
A daily waste collection (including Saturdays, and even Sundays in some areas) must surely be convenient for its users, especially in a hot climate where waste may quickly begin to smell. However, making residual disposal so much more convenient than a trip to the local recycling facilities seems to send the wrong signals. Although the density of bring sites has increased in recent years, the national municipal dry recycling rate (according to the recent EEA compiled statistics) has crept up only slowly, reaching 7% in 2010. Some limited composting supplements this figure but, while 15% was being treated this way in 2005, it had fallen to 6% by 2010.
A scale of authority
The lack of an accessible “history of local waste services” means I can only guess as to why a daily waste operation is provided on Malta and its scenic sibling Gozo. It is tempting to speculate that the local government framework may be a factor. With 68 local councils covering the 140,000 households and population of 420,000, the average municipality has just 2,000 households. There are no higher levels of administration except national government, so each tiny council bears responsibility for its local waste service.
These numbers prompt a supposition. If the collection operation is a simple one (e.g. throwing sacks of mixed waste into the back of a truck) and the quantity of waste is not large (because the collection frequency is high), it is quite conceivable to collect from around 2,000 properties per day. Perhaps the average authority has simply purchased a collection vehicle and found that the best way to fully utilise it is to visit each household every day, collecting whatever the residents happen to throw out – hopefully not too much of it from third storey windows. Although this supposition rests on some bold statistical liberties, it does fit what I observed.
It is interesting to contrast this with my home city of Bristol which has almost precisely the same population and number of households as Malta, and yet has one local authority with a sole household waste collection service contractor. Back home, despite our waste vehicles only serving around 700 households per day, the fortnightly residual waste collection means Bristol is able to operate with fewer than 20 residual waste vehicles in total – backed of course by a strong recycling fleet.
This cursory view of collection is, however, slightly disingenuous to Maltese waste management. In the past few years municipalities have adopted ‘Recycling Tuesdays’ where, once a week, the refuse vehicles collect recyclables instead of residual waste. I learnt during my visit that the recycling collection is a co-mingled one, and that operators face significant material quality issues after sorting. Locally, there is a toss-up between low capture but better material quality through the bring banks, or higher capture with lower quality through household collection. The option of kerbside sort or two stream collection taken by many UK local authorities isn’t open to municipalities collecting using perhaps only one vehicle.
Maltesers: a lighter way…
So what of the future of waste management in Malta? Is there a real prospect of the island lightening its load of residual waste? It is clearly the adopted norm to have waste collected regularly, so why not switch to food waste collections on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? With food waste constituting over 50% of household waste according to a recent composition analysis, this would be an obvious material to target for better management. Recycling Tuesdays could continue, with residual waste collected on the remaining days.
It’s likely that in order to collect separate streams of material the local councils would ultimately need to invest in different, more specialised vehicles. Individually, this might be unaffordable, but collaborative procurement between authorities would be a way around this issue. Indeed, partnership working would be a vision for future practice that would make better and more efficient use of equipment and other resources.
One further approach that could reap easy returns in relation to recycling rates, material quality and also local employment would be separate kerbside collection of key recyclables. Again, the island is experimenting with such approaches, having recently commenced trials for (currently monthly) separate glass collection. Priorities are still being determined as the country prepares its forthcoming National Waste Plan, and clearly options exist which could have propitious outcomes.
What of the treatment options for collected materials? The treatment of organic waste is a challenge: garden waste is as conspicuously absent from the household waste composition as gardens are from the landscape. This rules out traditional composting for a biological treatment option. However, the island’s residual treatment operations present an interesting alternative solution.
One third of Malta’s residual waste is already being sent for anaerobic digestion (AD)-based mechanical and biological treatment (MBT) at a facility near the seaside village of Marsakala. A second such plant, planned for construction at Ghallis, is intended to receive the remaining two thirds. The introduction of a separate food waste collection would allow even greater value to be derived from Malta’s significant investment in this flexible technology at little extra cost. The AD capacity could be switched to treat clean, source-segregated food waste rather than just material derived from residual waste. In addition to biogas, Malta’s waste would then yield a digestate that would meet the end of waste criteria. This is appealing on regulatory grounds, as it means moving material up the waste hierarchy, but also on very practical grounds: locally produced soil conditioner is valuable in a country so arid and rocky. Promisingly, this option is now being considered.
Malta can Gozo much further
To put Malta’s waste systems in context, let’s probe the broader institutional and cultural issues of these small islands. Malta has twice been heavily besieged, and spent over 2,000 years under foreign rule. Its last governors were the British, but prior to that came successive and often oppressive occupations by Romans, Greeks, German tribes (Goths and Vandals no less), Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, French and so on. Malta finally got its independence in 1964, became a republic in 1974, and joined the EU in 2004.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given its relatively recent liberation, Maltese society is strongly politically motivated, boasting the highest voter turn-out in the world for nations without mandatory voting. Managing a country smaller than many cities is inherently challenging, so I was struck by the well developed and integrated administrative institutions. Although there is more to be done in waste and much rests on the forthcoming National Waste Plan, it is good to see the island debating options for more progressive management systems.
This short journey through the waste-time continuum may not quite act as a history of waste in Malta, but I did uncover a take home message. Although overlooked in the grand narratives of nations, waste systems are woven from the same tangled threads of contingency that make up the cloth of its culture and architecture. In seeking to shape the future, we can only ever begin with the material that history has delivered, and progress often depends upon a proper understanding of the past. Perhaps understanding why certain waste practices are in place and how they function may offer clues as to how we can better tailor them for future needs.
Malta has developed a distinctive waste management culture, but one that needs to evolve if it is going to meet the country’s future needs. Like the nations that operate them, waste systems stand the greatest chance of survival and success if they can be adaptive, flexible and tolerant of whatever the future may throw at them.