Is waste separation working, or are people doing it in vain? Keith Micallef visited the Magħtab complex manned by State agency Wasteserv to understand the way waste is handled. 

Although Malta has two waste treatment plants – Sant’Antnin in Marsascala and Malta North in Magħtab – all waste is currently being taken to Magħtab.

Wasteserv has admitted that some mixed waste is not being treated but landfilled instead, as Magħtab cannot handle the amount being generated.

Why is the Sant’Antnin plant out of action?

The Sant’Antnin waste treatment plant is not operating, mainly for two reasons:

First, the section of this plant that treated recyclable waste such as plastic, cardboard and glass from bring-in sites was destroyed in a fire in May 2017. This waste is now being treated at Malta North together with all grey waste bags.

A second reason involves Sant’Antnin’s mechanical and biological treatment plant, which was not damaged in the fire.

Until recently, it was being used to treat mixed waste in black bags and all organic waste, according to Wasteserv.

Mixed waste in black bags was intentionally being added to organic waste because the plant was never designed to treat organic waste exclusively and not enough organic waste was being generated for the plant to operate properly.

While organic waste from households is now enough for this plant to function without having to add black waste bags, for this to happen, the plant needs upgrading. It was closed down at the beginning of the year for a €3 million upgrade and is expected to be operational by June.

What goes on at Magħtab?

At Magħtab, commercial waste in skips is being dumped directly into the landfill with no separation.

Wasteserv says this practice will be reduced when there is less of a load on this plant.

In terms of household waste, all white and grey bags and roughly half of the black bags are deposited in different sections within a large reception hall before being treated.

White bags 

These are taken to Magħtab’s mechanical and biological treatment plant, which removes non-organic parts and prepares the organic items for further treatment.

Black bags

These are treated in the same plant after all white bags have gone through this process.

However, not all black bags are being treated: 49 per cent are going directly to the landfill as the plant has no capacity to treat them all.

This volume is set to decrease when the Sant’Antin organic waste plant is in operation again by June.

During this process at Magħtab, about 35 per cent of treated black bags are extracted as contaminated organic waste, 30 per cent go to the landfill while five per cent are recyclables.

Compacted waste. Photo: Chris Sant FournierCompacted waste. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

The waste left behind from black bags after removing the organic, recyclable and landfill components is turned into what is known as refuse-derived fuel. It accounts for 30 per cent of the treated black bags and is compacted in 900-kilo bales. These highly flammable bales are then exported.

Grey/Green bags 

As for recyclable waste, this first undergoes treatment to remove metal parts by means of a magnet, with the rest (plastics and paper) being sorted out manually.

The rest 

The only component left is the organic waste from white bags and the contaminated organic waste extracted from black bags. They are mixed together, turned into liquid form, and placed into tanks without oxygen.

A bacterial process then takes effect, generating gas in a process called anaerobic digestion, which takes roughly 30 days to complete.

This gas is being extracted and used to generate electricity for around 700 households (10MWh per day), and the compost-like material (digestate) left is used as inert material to cover the landfill. Since there is no pasteurisation equipment installed, the material is not safe to use by farmers.

Graphic: Christian Busuttil/Design StudioGraphic: Christian Busuttil/Design Studio

When is the situation expected to improve?

Not before June, when the Sant’Antnin plant will re-open and all organic waste will be diverted there from Magħtab.

Meanwhile, a basic sorting line is being set up at Sant’Antnin in order to alleviate 250 tonnes of grey bags per week from Malta North. This is expected to be operational in the coming weeks.

These two measures are intended to reduce the amount of black bags being landfilled in the short term.

Waste in numbers

How much waste is being generated right now?

In 2018, the total amount of waste stood at 310,041 tonnes according to the National Statistics Office.

How much do households generate?

According to Wasteserv, in 2018 the figures were 140,470 tonnes of black bags (mixed waste), 7,385 tonnes of white bags (organic waste) and 22,927 tonnes of grey bags (recyclable waste). However, the data has to be treated with caution as it was only from November 2018, that obligatory sorting of household waste was introduced.

How much waste per inhabitant?

Eurostat data shows that in 2018, each inhabitant was producing 640 kilogrammes of waste per year. Looking at the bigger picture, there has been a constant increase since 2013.

What amount of recyclable waste is being collected?

In 2018, the amount from door-to-door glass collection, bring-in sites and civic amenity sites (excluding commercial and industrial) was the following: glass: 4,470 tonnes; plastic: 640 tonnes; paper: 1,635 tonnes; and metal: 1,216 tonnes.

What is the volume being exported?

In 2018, it was 4,978 tonnes of glass, 1,025 tonnes of plastic, 2,563 tonnes of paper and 3,871 tonnes of metal.

The reception hall at Magħtab where some black bags and all white and grey ones are deposited upon arrival. Photo: Chris Sant FournierThe reception hall at Magħtab where some black bags and all white and grey ones are deposited upon arrival. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Long-term plan

In the long term, all waste management facilities will be centred in Magħtab and the Sant’Antnin plant will be closed in a few years’ time, possibly by 2026.

2024, November – A material recycling facility will replace the old Sant’ Antnin facility which was gutted by fire in 2018.

2024, December – All incoming skips from commercial activities will be inspected in a special area and separated on site.

2024, December – Introduction of a stockpiling facility to enable the safe storage of recyclable materials earmarked for export and safeguard them from any possible fires in the rest of the complex.

2026 – An organic processing plant will replace Sant’Antin.

2026 – A waste-to-energy facility to take up waste which cannot be recycled and which is currently going to the landfill.

No date – A hazardous treatment waste facility will replace the one in Marsa. Wasteserv says this assignment was only recently given to it and the completion date has not yet been set.

Why concentrate all facilities at Magħtab?

According to Wasteserv, placing all waste facilities within the Magħtab area forms part of a holistic approach to waste management and an increase in operational efficiency.

The output of one plant is generally the input to another, so, consequently, having one centralised complex would reduce transportation and inconveniences caused by having various facilities scattered around the island, the agency says.

Why is the EU-funded Sant’Antnin going to be closed down?

The obligatory period imposed by EU funding during which Sant’Antnin must be kept operational has elapsed, Wasteserv argues.

It says the equipment is over a decade old, meaning that better solutions are necessary to treat organic waste in white bags, separately, and ensuring that the resulting digestate would be pasteurised to be able to use it as a fertiliser.

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