Our ancestors in centuries gone by did not throw things away. They used and re-used whatever they could. An unintended consequence of rising living standards since the 1960s is the increased generation of waste. Affluence creates more rubbish than poverty. People buy and consume more products and packaging, and discard much more.
Nowadays many items are even specifically intended for single use – made to be disposable. Advances in technology make products quickly become obsolete, even though they still work. Fixing a kettle can cost almost the same as buying a new one. Houses are knocked down at a faster pace than ever, with huge amounts of demolition waste.
Sometimes it is better to replace an old machine, such as a washing machine or a car, because the older model is less energy efficient. The scrapping of that waste can have less environmental impact than continuing to use an inefficient and polluting machine.
The government has announced that building a waste incinerator is back on the cards. When the idea was first mooted by the previous administration some years ago, there was an outcry of opposing voices and it was soon shelved. In the meantime, technology, policies and EU targets have shifted, and it remains to be seen how the battle will unfold this time.
The government immediately revealed, albeit indirectly, two concerns with introducing incineration in Malta. Firstly, it announced that recycling will become mandatory. Secondly, it attempted to justify locating the incinerator at Magħtab in the north of Malta, by implausibly implying that the only alternative is a Natura 2000 site.
Why were these two particular points made right away, at the starting line of the race? Let’s have a closer look.
The first point reveals a concern with achieving the waste targets agreed to by all EU Member States, including Malta. EU waste management policy is based on a hierarchy of five steps, striving to avoid the creation of waste and aiming to turn Europe into a ‘recycling society’. When waste is unavoidable, it should not be seen as a burden but innovatively turned into a resource.
In this hierarchy, the most desirable rung is the prevention of waste. If this is impossible, then materials should be re-used. If not, then they should be recycled and turned into something else. These are the three best steps for waste management. Following this, the next option is ‘recovery’, such as producing energy through incineration. The final option is disposal, perhaps in a landfill.
By 2030, the common EU target is to recycle 65 per cent of municipal waste and 75 per cent of packaging waste, and to reduce landfilling to only 10 per cent of municipal waste. These are steep targets, and to date we are very far from achieving them. It is also agreed to phase out or greatly minimise landfills. In any case, Malta is fast running out of space, and Magħtab cannot absorb much more. This small island cannot hold further large landfills, and we urgently need alternatives.
While a waste-to-energy incinerator could provide a workable alternative to landfilling, it may present new issues of its own. To operate well, the new incinerator will presumably need to be fed continually with a certain volume of waste. But as Malta must follow the waste hierarchy, and strive to considerably reduce or re-use waste over the coming years, and achieve high recycling targets, what volumes and types of waste are actually required for this incinerator to be feasible? It would be good to see the projected figures.
The second point anticipates concerns about the location of Magħtab. The burning of various materials requires very high temperatures and can generate hazardous gases and pollution. Incineration plants must therefore burn waste under highly controlled conditions.
As we know only too well from the polemics that raged over the various power stations at Delimara, the prevailing north-west Majjistral wind blows some of the power station air pollution out to sea. But would this be the case with an incinerator chimney at Magħtab? Would any air pollutants reach densely populated areas in the vicinity of Magħtab, such Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq, St Julian’s or Sliema, San Pawl tat-Tarġa or Naxxar, Burmarrad, Buġibba or Qawra? How far would any air emissions travel and what would they consist of?
These are the questions that people are most likely to ask and the answers should be openly provided as soon as possible.
The size and location of any incinerator should not be decided before all alternatives have been properly studied and assessed. Why Magħtab and not, for example, Ħal Far?
Beyond the emotional response, with people instinctively rejecting the idea of living close to a major industrial incinerator, we need to see the facts. Extensive studies were carried out for the power station and should also be done for an incinerator.
No permit should be granted or contracts signed before all relevant environmental information is made available to the public.