The saga relating to waste and its management in Malta have long been part a changing discourse in the country. As a child, I remember long lines of trash lining both sides of streets and jokes about Malta’s only mountain, referring to the huge dumping ground in Maghtab.
Green Rhetoric in Malta
My time at primary and secondary school was plagued with green rhetoric with a number of campaigns launched by the government and local NGOs and outings to Malta’s waste management plant, that were at times informative but slowly transformed into a background nuisance being ultimately neglected by the time I left school.
That being said, there has been a significant improvement in waste management over the past twenty years that have seen the closure of our mountainous dumping sit and the adoption of recycling.
Unfortunately, academic research about the waste situation in the island is highly lacking. Through this auto-ethnographic essay, I hope to showcase the current situation in 2023 Malta during the initial stages of the state’s governmentally funded 700 million Euro, seven year plan titled ‘Project Green’ that started with a CE initiative and a new waste collection schedule.
In late 2022, the government of Malta launched a website dedicated to the project, https://project.green/, which until the date of submission of this essay remains largely bare and void of a concrete 7 year plan – leaving much to be desired in the construction of a ‘planned process of social change’.
In light of this, local articles documenting the municipal waste management discourse will be used along with development and anthropological sources regarding waste management to investigate two new emerging initiatives.
Autumn 2022, saw the hoarding of large bags of plastic bottles being collected in anticipation for the Beverage Container Refund Scheme (BCRS), a privately operated enterprise that promoted the recycling of these containers by depositing them at a local machine and being reimbursed with a 10 cents voucher – which has been accompanied by a 10 cents increase “potential pollution cost” (Briguglio, 2022).
The Circular Economy
An important aspect that is hardly mentioned about BCRS is the fact that it forms part of the implementation of a circular economy which is being promoted by the European Union in order to increase
“economic growth by creating new businesses and job opportunities, saving materials’ cost, dampening price volatility, improving security of supply while at the same time reducing environmental pressures and impacts” (pp.190, Kalmykova et al., 2017).
Circular economy works by the creation and optimisation of a value chain where ‘waste products’ are designed to be reused, and that can later be redesigned to maximize usage and minimise waste by reducing a product to its biological elements (Kalmmykova et al.).
Kalmykova et al. (2017) assert however, that converging methods on executing circular economy can potentially see its enactment poorly managed and putting the entrepreneurial investments at risk. In the case of BCRS, beverage bottles are recycled and sent abroad to be repurposed. Currently Japan is the largest proponent of a successful circular economy, which according to Kalmykova et al. (2017), has been achieved by acknowledging and striving to lower “hidden flows” (pp.198) which may occur when the waste exits the country.
The Economic Lessons from BCRS
In order to discuss the advent of this initiative further, I will be using economist Marie Briguglio’s (2022) newspaper article in which she discusses seven economic lessons emerging from BCRS.
So far, the scheme has been successful in collecting more bottles than are usually recycled in Malta, which teaches us that the Maltese might be motivated to recycle in order to get their 10 cent voucher (Briguglio, 2022). She notes that the success of this campaign works against the economic advantage of the private owner which is why there are government subsidies in place. (Briguglio, 2022).
For the third lesson, she suggests adjusting the machine for logistical problems which she deems as easily being solved (Briguglio, 2022). Some of the logistical problems that I have seen arise are waiting lines in order to use the machine which you will most likely travel to by car to be able to transport one’s stash.
This would not be such an issue if the natural environment would ultimately benefit, however the machines cannot house a large amount of bottles, meaning that after possibly waiting to use the machine, that is not equipped to shelter from changing weather conditions, it may be unusable.
The, at times, futile nature of the initiative is evident when the peoples frustration with the machine and they end in the dumping of recycling bags in mixed waste garbage disposal.
Briguglio (2022) goes on to mention that this would most likely result in the number of purchases of tap water filters and reverse osmosis systems. She was correct in her prediction but this again puts a strain on those most economically disadvantaged as they would still need to fork out upwards of 70 Euro every six months to maintain. Logically speaking, with inflation increasing the cost of living, a 10 cent increase in beverages and a hundred Euro twice a year can cause great hardship on vulnerable communities.
This is addressed in her sixth lesson where she asserts that it is a concerning problem that might be solved by providing better, filtered tap water for the economically disadvantaged, finally ending her article by lamenting that these schemes might help us to consider the way these schemes effect lower working classes (Briguglio, 2022). Interestingly, one of her lessons mentioned that middlemen might use the scheme by providing a pick-up service. Briguglio (2022) naturally has an economic view of this occurrence, but this is widely being done in the country with the donations of these bottles to cat feeders who use the vouchers to purchase cat food.
A Plague of Carnivorous Oriental Hornets
On one occasion I had a conversation with a local cat feeder who lamented that she had been through a threatening encounter with a member of the local council who accused her of dirtying the local square with wet food and attracting hornets. Carnivorous oriental hornets have become worrying pests during the countries’ sweltering summers (Arena, 2021).
The urban environments, as well as the mismanagement of mixed waste disposal, such as the lingering of spoilt and rotten have contributed to the invasion of these pests who pose a danger to both animals and humans (Arena, 2021). Further to this, the hornet has been damaging the bee population in Malta. In pursuit of curbing this problem the government is working to monetary fund bee keepers with devices to deter the hornet from creating its nest (Tihn, 2023).
Whilst the operation of highly expensive disposal trucks is cited as the main proponent for the new pick-up garbage disposal schedule, it may also be instrumental in further decreasing the attraction of the hornet population as organic waste is being removed 3 times a week (Magri, 2023).
This change was announced out of the blue and was a cause of confusion in the country. Two months prior to announcement of the change in mid-December 2022, the local council had sent out leaflets re-explaining the system that had been in place. Whilst the system was sudden, it was also needed. The different regional times of collection, and sometimes lack thereof, had been a cause of concern for a while in the country.
At times the local councils were contacted and were obliged to send out sanitation agents to collect the garbage, an action that the government has recently put a stop to (Times of Malta, 2023). This change was not only a surprise to the public but also to those working at the waste management plants who have had to deal with the residual complications due to lack of planning (my informant).
The new schedule, introduced on the 2nd of January, beckoned a period of garbage laden streets, with it proving to be highly inconvenient with the pick-up of black bags on Tuesdays rather than on a Monday after the weekend.
As one can imagine, the topic discussion was associated with the issuing of fines. Seemingly due to the sudden change, the government allowed a grace period during which garbage bags taken out on the wrong day have been presented with a sticker, which warns that would result in in future, a 150 Euro fine would be formally issued (Magri, 2023).
From a logistical standpoint, this endeavour seems like a waste of important resources since people seldom look at the their garbage once it exits their home. Apart from this, it would only end up putting more pressure on those who do not afford to pay this fine. Actions should be carried out to connect us to our environment and the safe guarding of it.
Drackner’s (2005) work may help elaborate on this idea. In his paper, he relates that waste can be a “social contagion, in which the negative qualities of garbage are transmitted to surrounding people in the eyes of others” (pp.175, Drackner, 2005). Drackner’s ethnography (2005) discusses the waste problem in 2003 Peru where he finds that whilst his subjects were aware of the problem and possible consequences that may follow if it is not tackled they seemed indifferent to the prospects. This may have been because the risks were not directly evident by Drackner (2005) reports a sort of detachment from the waste problem and his subject.
Interestingly, his article mentions that humans are known to act differently to certain beneficial knowledge they possess so this sentiment should not be entirely surprising (Drackner, 2005). By building on Mary Douglas’ work, Drackner (2005) outlines the ways in which people do not want to be associated with anything perceived to be ‘dirty’.
A psychological association seems to be constructed between garbage, bad aesthetics, foul smells and ultimately the people adjacent to it (Drackner, 2005). Visible waste in one’s road seems to correlate to social status and can be a cause of conflict in/between residents and local councils until someone takes accountability for its existence.
In light of this, it may be useful to look at a study about Maltese attitudes towards recycling to gauge the population’s commitment to waste separation, conducted in 2010. Bezzina and Dimech (2011) found that the population had a good knowledge of the way recycling should be carried out in households, the consequences of this not occurring and that did feel morally inclined to take up recycling habits.
There seemed to be no significant finding towards recycling with regards to different demographics. In addition to this it was found that there was no real sense of accountability, with people seemingly indifferent to the prospects of recycled waste becoming contaminated resulting in economic depreciation (Agius et al., 2008 cited in Bezzina & Dimech, 2011). These findings convey a sense of apathy towards the system, one can hope that a decade later these attitudes might have morphed.
Unfortunately the previously mentioned ‘dirt’ analogy can be most significantly applied to those who work directly with the handling of waste (Drackner, 2005). Whilst their work may be invaluable in keeping our roads clean they are often ostracized. Yousafzai et al. (2020) also relate that this rhetoric is more pronounced in Muslim countries like Pakistan were association to dirt is highly stigmatised.
Their research explored informal waste collection carried out by ‘sustainopreneurs’ who played a vital role in controlling the waste problem but their exclusion and involvement with such tasks exposed them to many hazards and toxins found when sorting through such material. Taking a more broad perspective, this stigma might also be the reason for a lack of academic literature surrounding the issue in Malta.
The authorities involved in waste management should be mindful of the fact that social change can be a highly complex process. In order to ensure more functional transitions, Maltese habits and attitudes should be further researched, along with the Maltese’ household practices. Backed with this knowledge, systems can be designed and adjust to the needs of the local people so that we can work with the state to get the most out of our trash. An exploration into this topic has broadened my view of the waste management problem enabling me to understand that it exists in a cycle that connects one issue to another. Thus, it seems that the information that should be administered should be more holistically.
Arena, J. (2021) ‘Oriental hornets are on the rise in Malta’s concrete jungle’ Times of Malta, 2 November, Available at: https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/oriental-hornets-are-on-the-rise-in-maltas-concrete-jungle.911535 (Accessed 07/02/2023)
Bezzina, F. & Dimech, S. (2011). ‘Investigating the determinants of recycling behaviour in Malta’, Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal, 22, pp. 463-485. doi: 10.1108/14777831111136072.
Briguglio, M. (2022) ‘Seven lessons from the BCRS’, Times of Malta, 14 December, Available at https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/seven-lessons-bcrs-marie-briguglio.1001257 (Accessed 07/02/2023)
Drackner, M. (2005) ‘What is waste? To whom?–An anthropological perspective on garbage’, Waste Manag Res, 23(3), pp. 175-181. doi: 10.1177/0734242X05054325.
Kalmykova, Y., Sadagopan, M. & Rosado, L. (2017). ‘Circular economy – From review of theories and practices to development of implementation tools’, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 135, pp.190-201. doi: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2017.10.034.
Magri, G. (2023) ‘New waste collection schedule is saving 15% of truck trips’, Times of Malta, 4 January,Available at: https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/new-waste-collection-schedule-saving-15-truck-trips.1005052 (Accessed 07/02/2023).
Project Green (2023) project.green, Available at: https://project.green/ (Accessed 07/02/2023).
Tihn, D. (2023) ‘Beekeepers to get funds to combat hornets, but homeowners are on their own’, Times of Malta, 1 February, Available at: https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/beekeepers-get-funds-combat-hornets-homeowners.1010976 (Accessed 07/02/2023).
Times of Malta (2023) ‘PN slams ‘illegal’ directive threatening local councils that collect waste’, Times of Malta, 11 January, Available at: https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/pn-slams-illegal-directive-threatening-local-councils-collect-waste.1006534 (Accessed 07/02/2023).
Yousafzai, M., Nawaz, M., Xin, C., Tsai, S. & Lee, C. (2020). ‘Sustainability of waste picker sustainopreneurs in Pakistan’s informal solid waste management system for cleaner production’, Journal of Cleaner Production, 267, pp. 1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.121913.