Helping Malta meet waste targets
Healing takes time. A site which has been used for uncontrolled dumping of all kinds of waste over the years must be dealt with in a timeframe suited to its hazardous nature.
Even countries as advanced as Germany have made mistakes with early landfills. Refugees from the wartime devastation of heavily bombed German cities were given housing built on old landfills. Some years later, when people became ill, hazardous landfill gases were detected in their cellars.
Dr Helmut Schnurer, EU Waste Management Twinning Project director, confirms it is possible to collect only about half of the gases issuing from Maghtab by means of the aerial emissions project now under way. With over 20 years' experience in waste management, Dr Schnurer heads the technical assistance programme to develop systems enabling Malta to implement the Producer Responsibility Directives.
Waste managers cannot always be expected to know what materials have been put into a product or its packaging. Manufacturers, importers, wholesalers and retailers make up a chain along which responsibility for the end of a product's life is passed along. Directives for packaging waste, old cars (end-of-life vehicles), electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) and batteries place these goods, and their packaging, under the responsibility of the producer.
Presenting figures to the EU Commission for the amount of packaging material recovered, sorted, re-used and recycled has so far been a source of embarrassment for the Maltese state. MEPA and GreenPak, with the help of industry and consumers, hope to bring the country into line with European waste targets to avoid penalties.
GreenPak takes responsibility
At a recent TAIEX* seminar on packaging waste, organised in collaboration with GreenPak, Ing. Mario Schembri noted that producers of packaging waste, importers and retailers, were just beginning to understand their responsibilities in view of the EU waste directives. Ninety per cent of packaging waste is brought into Malta by importers. Legal Notice 277/06 has placed this responsibility squarely on the business community which puts packaging on the Maltese market.
A Swedish representative of REPA waste scheme present at the seminar advised that those who pay membership for recovery schemes should have ample influence on fair pricing for the various actors and materials involved.
Shops are either obliged to take back packaging waste themselves or else they can create, or join an existing, system to collect, separate and pay for waste recovery. Wasteserv's 400 bring-in sites financed by tax payers, and to a large degree by EU funding, are not really in line with extended producer responsibility in Dr Schnurer's view.
Once the derogation which extended the deposit/refund system for refillable glass bottles expires, plastic throwaway containers will flood the market by the end of 2007. GreenPak proposes a system monitored and controlled by government in which the public can participate and which the business community itself enforces.
Affiliated with the GreenDot system of Pro-Europe in 31 countries, GreenPak is the only system currently licensed and authorised to assume responsibility for meeting waste targets on behalf of paid up member companies. In 2006 GreenPak financed the recycling of 300 tonnes of material that would otherwise have been sent to landfill so that all members qualified for a full refund of the eco-contribution.
The state should not decide the fee, says Dr Schnurer. There should be different fees for different types of packaging depending on recycling costs. Paying eco-contribution does not relieve companies from extended producer responsibility for batteries, end-of-life vehicles or electronic and electrical equipment. The EU landfill directive says fees should cover all costs. EU waste management subsidies favour the new member states but Maltese taxpayers still do not know how much they are paying for waste.
The GRTU has noted that the way eco-contribution is being calculated discriminates between certain products. Dr Schnurer clearly questions whether the proposed refund of eco-contributions is the right decision. Full exemption for companies meeting recycling targets might be preferable since refunding will create an administrative burden and is very complicated to carry out.
"The Maltese government must decide - not its advisers," says Dr Schnurer, who is nearing the end of his mission in this country.
"Malta's present rate of recycling is very low. Nobody knows exactly how much. A combination of approaches are recommended, including kerbside collection. For some areas mechanical sorting machines would give good results providing there is investment in cleaning soiled waste."
Asked last week by The Sunday Times about the prospects for introducing kerbside collection of sorted waste, a spokesman for the Ministry of Rural Affairs and Environment did not exclude that this system could be considered as an option within the full waste management programme but gave no further details.
The Czech Republic presents an interesting model where free-riders taking advantage have been stopped from importing goods after they tried to bypass responsibility for the waste they produce by refusing to participate in a recovery scheme. While it is questionable whether the Czech solution is in line with EU law, Malta may consider a different system.
MEPA intends to link registration for businesses to the packaging recovery scheme (GreenPak) directly with trade licence renewals in order to encourage a level playing field. Legislation drafted by the waste management team at MEPA to register companies importing packaged goods, so that the requested figures may be sent to Brussels, has so far stalled in the Environment Ministry's hands.
A large part of the twinning programme on implementing producer responsibility has included training of Wasteserv and MEPA staff. Study tours were held in Spain where waste managers face conditions of culture and climate similar to Malta.
Considering that industry may produce a substantial volume of hazardous waste is there an inventory of such waste?
Dr Schnurer predicts optimistically that within the next year MEPA will be in a better position, with enough personnel and serious law enforcement, to ensure that a hazardous waste inventory is built up.
"For the time being no such inventory exists although there are many TAIEX proposals on how to compile a hazardous waste inventory." Industries must gear up to inform MEPA of the type and quantities of hazardous wastes they are producing. This information must be passed on to MEPA since the authority is bound to report annually to the EU Commission.
Until adequate treatment or disposal facilities for hazardous waste become widely available some companies producing this type of waste are storing it.
"To a degree it is exported but there is some hazardous waste temporarily stored in sites not equipped or designed for this purpose. The conditions under which this type of waste is being stored are not always satisfactory. So far there has been little, if any monitoring by MEPA of sites where hazardous waste is being stored."
Some hazardous wastes decay with time. Others are very long lasting and must be put into permanent safe storage. Setting and enforcing permit conditions for temporary storage of hazardous waste is a challenge for MEPA. If the authority does not know where such waste is generated they cannot control it.
Former practices of depositing mixed municipal, commercial and industrial waste in a landfill continues to produce a toxic cocktail of liquids known as leachate. Modern landfills are lined to prevent any such hazardous liquids from entering the underground water table. Asked whether the required leachate tests are done on waste which enters Ta' Zwejra landfill to detect the presence of any hidden pollutants that might compromise the performance of the geotextile liner Dr Schnurer answered:
"Staff at the Malta Standards Laboratory have been trained how to take probes and test for leachates. Monitoring of leachate at the engineered landfill is being carried out. I would recommend that such results should be published. To get public acceptance one has to inform the public. Test results for airborne emissions of incineration and leachate concentrate at the landfills should be made public."
The Ta' Zwejra site, next door to the old unlined Maghtab dump, has been designed so that leachate collects in a pool at the bottom of the engineered landfill. Under the present system the leachate is pumped back up to the top of the heap where it is allowed to trickle down again to the bottom. Dr Schnurer believes that this may not be the best way to deal with leachate in the long term.
By first solidifying leachate concentrate, then destroying organic substances and removing salts for re-use, a small amount of hazardous substances would remain. These could be appropriately disposed of in a landfill specifically designed for hazardous waste.
In Germany this type of disposal site, the final resting ground for various types of hazardous waste, is often located deep underground. The geology of the region provides safe non-porous rock for this purpose. Hazardous waste is imported for permanent disposal at such sites.
An odour suppression unit at Maghtab attempts to mask the smell at the entrance to the dump site. Dr Schnurer observes that a continuous system of gas collection might be a better way to avoid bad odours rather than covering the smell with other smells.
What can Malta do better to reach EU waste targets? The first step is a waste management plan. Malta should have delivered its National Waste Management Plan in 2004.
A task force under Dr Schnurer's guidance, through a separate technical assistance programme, is assisting the streamlining of MEPA's Waste Management Subject Plan and the Ministry's Solid Waste Management Strategy into one integral plan together with waste management policies for all sectors including agricultural, fisheries, chemicals and hospital waste. A draft plan covering all these sectors to bring Malta in line with the waste framework directive should soon be made subject to public consultation.
"Open participation at an early stage of the process is absolutely necessary to convince people that Malta is going the right way, not only the cheapest way.
Information strategy has not been very good in Malta. Dr Schnurer notes that, although the different players are trying to do a good job, information flow between different ministries and even within the same ministry is not as it should be.
"We try to advise MEPA, WasteServ and the ministry how to cope with information systems and how to increase public awareness. We took ministry staff to Berlin and Hamburg to show them what they are doing there in public participation and information on waste."
Asked about agricultural waste, Dr Schnurer admits that he has been provided with very little information as to how the waste management strategy fits in with the waste master plan for agriculture. WasteServ did try to identify a waste facility for agricultural plastic but this must first be cleaned before treatment.
Disposal methods for farmers' empty containers with traces of fertilizers or pesticides needs looking into. As to the problem of manure from a large stock of animals in Malta the practice on German farms is to have their own digesters producing electricity for the grid.
From landfill to incineration
Germany is moving away from landfills as a disposal solution. Even the municipality of Sacramento in California has been receiving Dr Schnurer's advice on phasing out landfills as sites become more difficult to find due to residents' objections.
"To landfill you have to buy the land, build an engineered landfill, set up leachate collection systems, maintain, provide personnel ...then there is the after-care, collecting leachate and gas for at least 30 years."
How long will it be before Ta' Zwejra can be made use of as a public area again? "Forty, 50, 60 years... but not recommended for housing - ever. It might make a good site for solar collectors or a wind farm or ski slope with artificial snow - 100 years or less could still be dangerous."
A joint venture is planned between Germany and Malta to combine incineration of waste with the production of drinking water at reverse osmosis plants with possible supply of electricity generated to the grid. It is foreseen that this technical solution can be sold to other areas of the Mediterranean and the world.
Photovoltaics are not considered practical for powering reverse osmosis plants in Malta. The reason? Dr Schnurer is convinced that expensive PV panels on RO plants in rural areas of Malta would be at high risk of damage from hunters.
*Technical Assistance Information Exchange