The European Commission has just issued a report, based on the waste management efforts of European Union states in 2010, entitled Screening Of Waste Management Performance Of EU Member States - comparing how various states deal with their municipal rubbish.

It might be fair to begin by asking why the Brussels bureaucrats in Director General Environment have taken almost two years to publish this report. The question is relevant because although the picture painted of Malta is pretty abysmal, the fact is that in the two years since it was conducted, we have performed considerably better in this field.

Management of municipal waste is not a subject that sets the pulse racing. Yet, it is a vitally important matter affecting the quality of life and public health of all citizens. As Malta has become wealthier, it has created more rubbish. Each year we throw away thousands of tons of waste, much of it hazardous. Treating and disposing of all this material without damaging the environment has become a major headache. The horrors of the rubbish mountain of Magħtab are now thankfully behind us (within a few years, Magħtab will rise like a phoenix from the ashes to become a national park). But the problems of waste disposal will still remain.

Most of what we throw away is dumped into landfill sites. But land-filling takes up precious land space as well as causing air, water and soil pollution, discharging pollutants into the atmosphere and chemicals and pesticides into the earth and groundwater.

These are harmful to health and to plants and animals. Waste prevention and good rubbish management are essential.

The EU’s approach to waste management is based on three principles: waste prevention through the reduction of all waste generated; recycling and reuse by recovering materials and recycling them as a means of reducing the overall environmental impact; and improving the means of final disposal of rubbish that cannot be recycled by, in Malta’s case, adhering to strict EU guidelines on landfill management.

It is against this background of the objectives of good waste management that Malta’s performance in 2010 should be judged. The fact is we did badly, coming third from the bottom of the league table, with only Greece and Bulgaria performing worse than ourselves. Of the 18 criteria used in the Commission’s study, Malta only passed in five.

Our major deficiencies lay in the most important performance criteria: Malta has still not implemented a waste prevention programme; it still has high levels of land-filling and its recycling levels are low and is still struggling to meet the targets for biodegradable waste. A stark statistic: in 2010 Malta was still land-filling over 86 per cent of its municipal waste and recycling about 15 per cent. By 2012, however, the land-filling figure was sharply down to 57 per cent.

Land-filling is Malta’s biggest waste problem since disposing of waste in this way is technically the worst way of dealing with it.

On the other hand, the report notes some positive elements, including the development of waste recycling, the excellent availability of daily waste collection services (which nonetheless have failed to stem the disgraceful national pre-disposition to litter and dump unwanted material almost anywhere) and the compliance of existing landfills in regard to non-hazardous waste.

Malta still has some way to go but, encouragingly, the picture seems to be improving.

Overall, therefore, the verdict is: could do better and must try harder.

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