Building trust on information
Organising the collection and shipment of hazardous waste across national boundaries is no small feat. When pharmaceutical corporations first started expanded their operations to Malta they found that the necessary infrastructure for safe handling of their hazardous waste by-product was not in place. A handful of Maltese companies have sprung up to fill the niche, providing an essential service to industry, ports and government-run entities.
Several corporate companies forming part of a larger European or global network are now operating in Malta. "With certain exceptions they are the ones who jumped on board first to dispose of their waste in an ethical way," a source from the private waste management sector said.
In any discussion on hazardous waste we are reminded that up to five years ago all types of waste were being dumped at the Magħtab rubbish dump indiscriminately.
Large companies with corporate structures are likely to have social responsibility charters. This might be good for public relations but if they claim a status of 'zero landfill' they must put their money where their mouth is and dispose their waste in an ethical and controlled manner.
Most industries in Malta are micro-enterprises. "It is not part of their ethos to pay someone to remove a couple of drums of waste," the source pointed out. They are purely cost-conscious and not bothered.
Regulations on disposal of hazardous waste are rigidly enforced on the few operators who do everything by the book. This lets government clock up a presentable rate of compliance on paper. At the same time it is business as usual for rogue operators without permits, freely conducting their illicit business below the radar.
A hazardous waste inventory should tally waste generated with waste treated in local facilities or exported for treatment and final disposal. In reality, there appears to be little co-ordination, with everyone in the sector working separately.
Exporting hazardous waste can cost hundreds of euros per tonne. Better co-operation between players in the hazardous waste market would crackdown on illegalities and bring more competitive prices for exporting clients' waste.
Some operators may be storing their hazardous waste in the hope that government will come up with an offer cheaper than the service being provided by private waste-handling companies.
It would not be the first time that cost structures laid down by the private sector have been undermined by Wasteserv. Government felt pressed to offer viable alternatives at a lower cost to ensure competitiveness of local industry.
Not everyone is aware that the Marsa thermal treatment plant at the civil abbatoir is being used to treat a limited stream of hazardous waste. This complies with the proximity principle, which calls for waste treatment and disposal to take place near the point of origin.
Private waste companies were hurt commercially when Wasteserv started taking waste from their clients to incinerate it at the Marsa facility. Some are resigned to changing with the times and prepared to focus on waste streams the government cannot so readily handle.
The private operators are resentful when they are expected to police the sector.
"If private enterprise is given that role, then it becomes judge and jury over its own operations - this doesn't make sense. The Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa) has to be given the resources to inspect all stakeholders and round up those who are operating outside the system," explained one small firm under Mepa's sharp but narrow lens.
"Our job is to find the right incinerator for a particular type of waste. The incineration plant at Marsa can only treat certain waste streams. It has limitations which even Wasteserv acknowledges."
This should provide an opportunity for certified waste handlers to export waste for treatment in specialised incinerators abroad. Yet claims that the local incinerator is being 'overstretched' are rampant.
"I have strong reservations about what is being burnt at Marsa and how it is being incinerated. We have visited the treatment plants receiving the waste we shipped from Malta and we can see tangible differences. Some of the clients who had left us to use Wasteserv's services because it is cheaper, have come back," the firm said.
"The Marsa plant can only accept waste with a certain level of chlorine in it because it produces dioxins, but unfortunately you have spikes. I am ready to accept that during the commissioning stage when you are fine-tuning the operation you might have excessive emissions levels, but spikes on a regular basis would mean something is structurally wrong. The secondary chamber - the after-burner, is only supposed to be used when there are problems... not every other day."
"If the Wasteserv plant is bound to give real-time data why are we looking at data from last October (*) on its website? the source said.
The Ministry of Resources in charge of waste (but is no longer Mepa's keeper since the Office of the Prime Minister took over) is not altogether happy either.
According to a ministry spokesman the incinerator is downloading information on emissions every half hour. Data are sent in batches to an Italian organisation for auditing, then forwarded to Mepa.
"As soon as Mepa approves the data it should go online. Ideally, it should go online directly from the incinerator where it can be seen by all - the local councils, independent assessor in Italy, Mepa and the public. To continue to build trust people need to see data real time."
As the national authority for the Aarhus convention on the public right to environmental information, Mepa is obliged to ensure that the holder of the data makes it readily accessible to the public.
(*) Since this interview was held the Mepa website readings have been updated until January.