In search of litter bugs
Nearly a month has passed since the new littering regulations came into force. Ariadne Massa spent a day with two green wardens. This is the diary she kept.
6.30 a.m. It's chilly and dark. Though an ungodly hour for some, a few brave souls are already out walking their dogs along the Sliema seafront or fitting in their exercise for the day. Waiting for the green wardens to show up, I start wondering if it's not all a joke, compliments of my colleagues in the newsroom. Every minute of delay seems like eternity.
6.40 a.m. Phew! They finally show up. Patrick Vella, KDM Group operations executive (one of the two companies that employs wardens), introduces Richard*, 24, one of 22 newly trained green wardens on the beat, patrolling the streets for litter bugs.
"I was a traffic warden for one year and I preferred it because it is easier to do the job. Somehow, in plain clothes it's much harder to catch people in the act. I was given no choice but to switch," he says shrugging his shoulders.
However, he still puts his heart in the job, though he admits he'd still love to shift to being a traffic warden in uniform one of these days.
Strolling along the promenade, Richard walks ahead, a relaxed amble, eyes darting towards every movement and hands in pocket - nobody would guess he is a green warden.
His eyes are peeled for anybody who is walking their dog and whenever he passes a bus stop he slows down to check if somebody is smoking.
"People are constantly complaining about dog pooh along the Sliema seafront, so it's one of the areas we try to patrol at different hours. Smokers on the other hand believe they're a hunted breed, which really isn't the case," Mr Vella says.
"The public get used to the faces pretty quickly and sometimes they nod their heads in recognition, so we make it a point to shift wardens' duties from district to district," he adds.
So have any wardens had to face the wrath of the public?
"The other day there was a family picnicking at il-Kuncizzjoni and a warden went to stop them from throwing their rubbish into a nearby field. The father simply grabbed the warden by the scruff of the neck and threatened to throw him over the cliff or burn him, while pointing to the marble memorial of Sylvia King," he recounts.
Luckily, these incidents are rare and the worst they have to face is usually verbal abuse... buckets of it.
"When I was a traffic warden I stopped a guy overtaking over the white line. He started arguing and threatening me, but it stopped there," Richard says, getting back in step with us.
Mr Vella adds: "Police are respected more than wardens, because they're an established corp. Traffic wardens were considered a joke from day one and were only taken seriously when the fines hit people's pocket, then the hatred set in. True, mistakes do happen, and will continue to do so, but it's what we always see highlighted in the press and the issue is amplified."
7.15 a.m. Nobody caught breaking the law so far. Having reached the Love Statue in Spinola Bay we turn back and walk along the path by the sea, a popular trail with dog owners who don't wish to pick up their pet's excrement. A few dried puddings litter the trail - but there is nothing the warden can do if he doesn't witness the act.
"People are wising up to our presence and it's hard to catch them in the act."
7.45 a.m. Back where we started. Nathalie*, a warden contracted by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, joins us on the beat. We head to the San Gwann primary school in an inconspicuous jeep.
So how does it feel to be in a job hated by so many?
"You get used to the swearing and threats... it's all in a day's work. I don't normally tell people what I do. Their eyes pop out when I say I'm a warden, and after a while they start joking and asking me to cancel their fine. It's a thankless job but someone has to do it," she says.
Nathalie, 42, who also started off as a traffic warden, had actually signed up six years ago as a joke. Her three friends had applied and she tagged along. As opposed to Richard, she prefers working undercover.
8 a.m. The local council has pointed out the school surroundings as a problem area. Richard and Nathalie walk off ahead. A lifeless black garbage bag lies outside the school gate.
"Somebody got here before us," Mr Vella comments, as he diverts his attention to an overflowing skip round the corner. "The local council ensures they're emptied regularly and if it's full people should refrain from depositing their rubbish."
8.05 a.m. Nathalie confronts a mother, who is waiting for her son to enter the school, for flicking a cigarette butt on the floor. She whisks a notebook out of her black leather jacket and takes down the woman's details. The woman is seeing red.
"She feels like having me for breakfast! She hasn't realised but I haven't actually booked her, which is good, that way she'll spread the word and people will think twice before throwing the cigarette butt on the floor," she said with a smile.
8.15 a.m. The woman is certainly not cheering; on the contrary she's now in a foul mood, recounting in angry whispers what has just happened - it seems Nathalie's plan is working.
"I've just been fined Lm25 by that woman there," she says pointing discreetly at Nathalie and swearing.
"When was this law introduced? Huh, this is easy money for the government; a perfect way to get rid of the country's debt," she said her voice dripping with sarcasm.
She is completely oblivious to Mr Vella and myself sitting behind her and listening in on her conversation.
"The sad thing is that despite the information campaigns some people have no idea that these littering fines have been introduced. Apart from that it's not the central government which takes the money," he pointed out.
In fact, 70 per cent of the littering fines originating from wardens contracted by local councils are distributed to the council and 30 per cent to the environment fund, while with dumping fines the revenue will be split equally.
8.40 a.m. Back to the jeep. This time heading for Valletta. Walking through Republic Street I pray that nobody I know is caught littering - I wouldn't want to be standing there when they're fined. Everybody is going about their business and all seems in order.
9.40 a.m. Finally. Time for a quick coffee. In between relaxed chats their eyes flit around, looking for any wrongdoing. A man smoking at the entrance of St John's Co-Cathedral catches their attention, but it stops there.
10 a.m. Off to the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Richard and Nathalie are observing a man who is sitting on a bench, reading the paper and puffing away. When he's finished from his cigarette he gets up, and puts it out against the metal bin before disposing of it. Good behaviour considering that he doesn't know he's being watched. The wardens walk along and see schoolchildren running around or eating their lunch on the bench. They have been well taught and each one diligently gets up to throw the paper bags in the bin.
10.45 a.m. On our way out, Nathalie spots a woman bending down and putting her cigarette out in a puddle of water, before moving on to throw it in the bin. It's surprising to witness so many people with a civic responsibility. If Richard and Nathalie were not in plainclothes, I would have been convinced they were only acting this way because they saw a uniformed warden.
"When I don't book anyone it's encouraging and it gives me hope that people are learning," she says.
11 a.m. Walking around the bus terminus, the wardens stop three people and warn them in a firm, yet polite voice, that the next time they throw the cigarette butt on the floor they will be fined. The culprits look embarrassed. They apologise, pick up the butt and throw it away. When a couple of German tourists are stopped, they avoid Nathalie, thinking she's selling timeshare. They're not booked, a futile exercise since who would pay the fine?
12 p.m. Back in the jeep we take a detour along Hornworks Ditch in Floriana - a popular dumping site that keeps piling up with tyres, mattresses, sofas, rubble and garbage, despite being cleaned up regularly. There's nobody in site.
12.30 p.m. Driving along the Birkirkara Bypass, Nathalie and Richard notice muddy treks along a side road. Patrick drives back towards the development site. A truck is being loaded with rubble and wet soil.
Mr Vella explains that the developer should have a wheel-washing facility at the exit of the site to avoid spoiling a public road, which is considered an offence. They have to wait for the truck to emerge and actually see for themselves that this is what has caused the problem.
12.45 p.m. Waiting is part of the game. Nathalie takes the opportunity to radio back to base to let them know of their whereabouts. "It's a form of security... as long as they hear you," she says laughing.
12.50 p.m. A woman dressed in a suit and high heels attempts to tiptoe through the mud. It's hard to succeed, unless she sprouts a set of wings and flies the distance.
1.15 p.m. It seems like the waiting has paid off. The truck starts driving towards the exit, but just when it reaches the boundary wall, a colleague shouts a warning to the driver to stop. Does he sense the green wardens about to pounce? The driver switches off the truck and gets down. Is he also playing the waiting game? Will it be a battle of patience, over who gives up first?
1.30 p.m. It turns out the driver needed an extra push from the mechanical shovel to get the wheels out of the sludge. Unsuspectingly, the guy drives out. Richard and Nathalie allow him to drive for a few metres, then flag him down. He protests that the truck is not even his, but the wardens stand their ground and fine him.
Mr Vella comments that one of the problems wardens face on a daily basis is that few people carry any form of identification on them.
1.45 p.m. Time for lunch.
3 p.m. Driving around Naxxar looking out for truck spillages. A bus drives up Labour Avenue belching smoke; why can't the green warden stop him? Mr Vella explains that green wardens don't have the power to stop him and while traffic wardens have the authority to issue littering fines, it doesn't work the other way around.
3.30 p.m. Passing past a building site, they realise the newly laid tarmac has been muddied. The wardens get down and warn the workers, who civilly agree to clean the road. Nathalie tells them she will pass by the next day and if nothing has been done they would be fined.
3.45 p.m. A truck drives up t'Alla u Ommu hill. The construction material is properly covered and all looks in order, but Nathalie spots fine rubble filtering out occasionally. She and Richard argue over whether they should pursue it further. Richard insists they would be nit-picking so they drop it.
4 p.m. Driving through the countryside not much is amiss. Emerging near the Splash and Fun Park, we aim for the abandoned White Rocks Complex in search of any dumpsters - there's lots of rubbish, but again nobody in sight.
5 p.m. Back to Sliema. This time to walk along The Strand. It starts drizzling and there are few people around.
5.30 p.m. Back to the jeep, which is parked close to my house. I jokingly refuse to tell them where I live, for fear they will pounce on me next time I take the rubbish out before I go to work. We have a mini debate over this, because what are working couples expected to do if the refuse is collected at 2 p.m.? Mr Vella explains that green wardens were treading carefully and so far just one fine had been issued for this offence.
* Names have been changed to protect the persons' identities.
Nearly one month after the new littering regulations came into force, Kevin Gatt, Management Efficiency Unit consultant, responsible for overseeing their implementation, is cautiously optimistic that the people's attitudes are changing.
Do you feel the public is shedding its littering habits?
I think the people's awareness levels have been raised considerably, which is having a knock-on effect on their attitudes. Unfortunately, it is the one who gets away that often makes the news. However, we have to take cognisance of those who have been affected by the publicity and awareness; those who have taken a specific interest to come forward and ask questions as well as those who have changed their behaviour. All in all, I must say that we have registered an improvement.
What were the teething problems? Successes?
No system is perfect from day one. We have had some teething problems in ensuring that the wardens are practical and issue the correct fines and we have also had some problems with the software. This is an evolving process and constant improvements will be made as we go along. However, I think we have managed to create a significant awareness on the issue.
Has the tender for the provision of new litter bins, with special receptacles for different waste, been adjudicated?
We are at a very advanced stage of selecting the preferred bidder. All is being done to secure that the litter bins will come at no additional cost to local councils. However, we want to make sure that we provide what we think gives the best level of service possible.
What about the proposal to install CCTV cameras in areas that are particularly prone to dumping?
We are also working on this avenue. However, I do not think that it makes sense for the government to disclose its plans for the installation and location of such cameras.
Why do traffic wardens have the power of green wardens and not the other way around? Say, for example, the green warden sees a truck belching smoke, why does he not have the power to stop the driver?
Green wardens have been delegated specific powers. They have been introduced for the first time and it was wise to test them on one focus area. The government might eventually consider extending their remit.
143 fines since January 1
Since the new regulations have come into force on January 1 the green wardens have issued a total of 143 fines. Of these, 129 were littering contraventions and 12 dumping.
Under the new regulations the fine for littering has shot up to between Lm25 and Lm50 from Lm10. Meanwhile, the fines for dumping are now up to between Lm1,000 and Lm2,500 from Lm500 to Lm1,000, and will double if the offence is committed close to monuments, heritage sites, parks or beaches.
A total of 53 fines were issued to trucks coming out of construction sites and dirtying the road or spilling part of their load while 22 contraventions were dished out to those who left garbage bags at the foot of an overflowing skip.
A few fines were issued to those who pumped rain water from a construction site onto the road, instead of getting a bowser. There have been minimal fines for taking garbage out before the stipulated time - councils advised wardens not to issue fines due to the erratic hours of refuse collection.
A breakdown of the fines was not available.