Our sister newspaper, the Times of Malta, last week ran two articles highlighting the shabbi­ness of Valletta and of Sliema and St Julian’s. Both gave prominence to photos showing a similar scene: a skip and a bin at a bring-in site surrounded by cardboard boxes and black plastic bags filled with rubbish.

Skips and bring-in sites are meant to provide places where people can leave their refuse out of sight, the aim being to keep the surrounding streets relatively litter-free or to separate and recycle some of the mountain of waste we generate. Rather obvious, one would think. Well, not for some. Due to some citizens’ utter disregard for the law and norms of decent behaviour, the areas around the skip/bin were a disgusting, unsightly mess.

Then the bombshell yesterday: footage from CCTV installed at two bring-in sites in Żebbuġ showed the extent of the abuse. The Times of Malta reported that the cameras had caught about 100 incidents of illegal dumping over a period of 10 weeks. All sorts of garbage was left behind. There were bed frames, construction debris, animal carcasses and, you’ve guess­ed it, cardboard boxes and black plastic bags full of rubbish.

The video footage showed people emerging from their cars, sometimes furtively at night but often casually in broad daylight, and proceeding to leave their detritus next to the bins. Shockingly, some men urinated at the site and one was even shown defecating.

Words fail at this stage. To know it happens is one thing. To witness it on video takes the revulsion to another level. Which is why the people behind this initiative – waste management service provider Greenpak Malta, Żebbuġ local council and the Cleansing Department – need to be congratulated. The action they took has led to plans by the police to arraign at least 50 people caught on camera doing their damnable deeds. And publicising the whole thing by passing on the footage to this news organisation has magnified the deterrence factor tenfold.

According to Greenpak CEO Mario Schembri, the initiative – a pilot project that will hopefully spread to other councils – was spurred a flood of complaints about the abuse. That means there are many concientious people out there. But the rate of offences committed – an average of five illegal dumping incidents per site per week – means the litter louts are a force to be reckoned with.

This is not exactly revelatory news for Malta, as the previous week’s stories about the shabbiness and countless others before them have highlighted over the years. The trouble is, there’s a sense of having become inured to the dirt, or perhaps helpless in the face of the magnitude of abuse. Local wardens are supposed to enforce littering laws but one supposes their hands are full dishing out parking tickets.

Mr Schembri opined that the lack of enforcement meant offenders were unaware that their behaviour is wrong. Perhaps he was being naive, but he is clearly off target here: illegal dumping on this scale, even if next to a skip or bin, is generally committed in full awareness of its offensiveness. It is a symptom of laziness and of contempt for the environment and for one’s neighbours.

But he was right to suggest that naming and shaming, and imposing tough penalties, would go some way to solving the problem. But first the offenders have to be caught, so as many local councils as possible need to join the project and equip their bring-in sites with cameras.

The police will no doubt have a skip-load of court cases to pursue. Come down on the offenders like a ton of waste though, and we may dare hope Malta will start to become slightly cleaner.