Weighing up the options on waste - Petra Caruana Dingli
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Weighing up the options on waste - Petra Caruana Dingli

Earlier this year, a government report about the proposed incinerator was published. This raised many questions. Where do we stand now?

For a start, it seems to be decided that this incinerator will be built at Magħtab. While the forthcoming environmental studies must still contain a site selection exercise by law, I doubt whether the chosen site will change.

A meeting of the parliamentary committee for the environment and planning was held on Monday. Minister José Herrera explained that Magħtab makes sense because it already contains the necessary waste infrastructure.

A main concern is air pollution, especially in this central area where air emissions from an incinerator are likely to reach residential zones well beyond towns and villages in the immediate vicinity of Magħtab. The Environment and Resources Authority representative present at the meeting, however, insisted that abatement measures today have advanced considerably and that the EU imposes stringent limits on emissions. I am sure we will hear a lot more on this subject.

Other possible sites, already mentioned some years ago, include Marsaxlokk, where the prevailing winds would blow air emissions out to sea and not inland. But Herrera explained that at Marsaxlokk an incinerator would also require new land to be taken up for waste storage, while at Magħtab existing degraded areas could be used for this.

By this argument, the disadvantages of land take-up are being weighed against increased air pollution in residential areas. Two negatives, but which should take priority?

The environmental studies must include air dispersion modelling, taking wind into account. Another concern will be the height of the chimney stack. But the decision to go for Magħtab sounds so much like a done deal that this is unlikely to make any difference to the overall outcome.

In truth, Malta is just too small to cope with its population size. We do not have enough land. There are too many buildings, cars, boats, people – and also too much waste. The projected expansion in population, encouraged by the government, is only making matters worse.

Land reclamation has a huge environmental impact and its pros and cons must be carefully weighed up

Malta is already beyond its carrying capacity, yet we are aiming to increase numbers. This does not make sense. Where is the vision and planning? The Planning Authority just dishes out money-making permits with little time or interest in the future.

One of the few strategic planning policies presented in recent years was the Paceville masterplan, now on ice in the freezer of the forward-planning department. In the meantime, permits are anyway being granted for big projects in the area, like that of the controversial db Group. New local plans have been in the pipeline for years but are still nowhere in sight. I dread to imagine what these new local plans will propose in this climate of zero concern for overdevelopment.

Once the environmental studies for the incinerator are completed, a public consultation will be held although it is unlikely that any major decisions will be overturned at that stage. An environmental permit regulating the operation of the plant will follow, but only once the location and size are already determined.

By international standards this is a small-scale incinerator. A bigger plant would require more waste to be channelled into it to be feasible, and this would discourage recycling thereby falling foul of EU targets. Incineration over-capacity in Europe has already been flagged as a concern by international organisations, as hungry incinerators discourage the reduction of waste generation in the first place.

At the meeting, Herrera repeatedly emphasised urgency, as the Magħtab landfill is fast reaching full capacity. It is very true that a solution for waste, replacing landfill, needs to be found quickly. As things stand, the plan is to have the incinerator functioning by 2023. The situation is dire and there are genuine concerns on how to manage waste in Malta until then.

A new initiative to reduce different waste streams immediately is the refund scheme for bottles. Unfortunately, its launch last week was immediately tainted by alleged links to the private business interests of the Prime Minister’s aide. This was swiftly denied but, true or not, when your reputation is damaged, mud sticks. This is a direct result of the refusal to nip problems in the bud, allowing them to grow heavier and heavier like the proverbial albatross.

Besides plastics, another massive problem is construction waste, especially in the current building frenzy. Joseph Muscat has suggested that the huge quantity of additional stone waste that would be derived from digging a tunnel to Gozo might be used for land reclamation near Magħtab. Putting aside the question of whether a tunnel is a good idea or not, land reclamation has a huge environmental impact and its pros and cons must be carefully weighed up.

What would be the purpose of this proposed land reclamation? Is it for vital infrastructure, or just to build more apartments and shopping centres? If it fuels an already overheated property market and encourages more speculation, then land reclamation is surely hard to justify.

petracdingli@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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