The European Commission is pondering adopting a circular economy across the European Union. The concept of a circular economy hinges on the mechanics of ‘life’ itself. Materials are turned into a product at birth and then recovered at the product’s end of life. By using these materials to make the next product and by repeating the process in a continuous endless loop you will have a circular economy in action.

The concept is simple. Yet, applying this model in today’s complex product supply chain is not. Some might even think that the plan is unnecessary, a frivolous flight of fancy. Not so.

A key objective of the circular economy is to make European industry and society less dependent on imports of critical raw materials, especially those originating from outside the EU. Once in, these materials should stay in, making the EU less vulnerable to high prices or market insecurity and less dependent on politically-volatile supplying countries.

At the same time, the European Commission aims to herald in a sustainable approach in the use of natural resources across the globe, easing pressure on raw material extraction, environmental degradation and threats to ecosystems. By the end of this year, the Commission is expected to come out with an ambitious initiative to promote a circular economy in all member states, Malta included.

It is baffling how Malta has survived while being so wasteful and short-sighted

In Malta, the amount of waste going to landfills remains staggeringly high, especially for a small island desperate for space. Coupled with the fact that the island is bare of almost all essential resources, it becomes increasingly baffling how Malta has survived while being so wasteful and short-sighted.

Malta is still trying to reduce the volume of material sent to the landfill despite this having been an essential objective in the island’s first waste management strategy of 2001. Fourteen years later, we are still sending about 80 per cent of all waste to the landfill when, by now,

Malta should have, like many other countries, already achieved more ambitious environmental targets, such as sending no untreated waste to the landfill.

Money is the main driver behind successful diversion of waste away from the landfill. Applying the basic polluter pays rule, those who are reckless in both waste generation and mixing their waste (thus making it difficult to recover the material) are not being penalised.

With the main treatment facilities on the island being government-owned, the true costs are opaque to the public. In fact, many believe they have a God-given right to have their mixed waste collected daily from their doorstep free of charge. The public is oblivious to the huge costs involved in providing this luxurious service and has not motivation to either reduce or recycle waste to cut costs. Over the years, many ad hoc initiatives were taken with hardly any noticeable success. Except in the area of packaging waste.

The cost of collecting and recycling packaging waste is being funded by companies whose trade gives rise to such waste. Originally introduced in 2003 by GreenPak, this concept – known in the industry as EPR, or extended producer responsibility – has gathered momentum and acceptance.

Today, EPR is an integral part of government policy. It is thanks to this model that, in 2012, Malta recycled 47 per cent of the packaging waste, up from six per cent in 2004.

EPR requires companies to recycle the product at its end of life. Companies, therefore, have an incentive to design products that are eco-friendly throughout their life cycle. In essence, EPR is a fundamental building block for the circular economy. Nevertheless, there are a number of persistent barriers keeping Malta from reaching higher recycling volumes.

Apart from the public having no obvious incentive to reduce or recycle waste, many commercial establishments piggyback the ‘free’ waste collection system provided by local councils, in truth funded by taxpayers’ money. Due to lax enforcement by the authorities, some companies still ‘free ride’ the system and do not practise EPR.

‘Junk mail’ generates a substantial amount of paper waste, yet, is unaccounted for by the industry generating it. Public participation in the soon-to-be-introduced separate collection of organic waste is unknown. The list of barriers for diverting materials away from the landfill remains long and varied.

As Malta continues to experience economic growth, it is running out of landfill space. Recovering materials from waste will extend Għallis landfill’s lifetime. There is an urgent need to iron out lasting barriers that could ultimately defeat the few successes Malta has had and lead to the collapse of the island’s embryonic circular economy.

Mario Schembri is the managing director of independent environmental consultancy firm AIS Environment.

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