Only one per cent of Malta's plastic waste was recycled in 2019, with most ending up dumped in landfill, according to a new report published by the National Audit Office. 

The NAO revealed the latest WasteServ statistics on how the island is managing its plastic trash and warned that it is "lagging behind" in reaching national and EU targets.

And it said government was shouldering the "lion's share" of waste management costs, overriding the 'polluter pays' principle.

The latest statistics show that the proportion of waste being recycled dropped from five per cent in 2016 to one per cent in 2019.

Malta's exports of plastic waste soared during the same period. Of the 42,800 tonnes of plastic waste in Malta in 2019, some 36 per cent was exported, up from 10 per cent the previous year and one per cent in 2016.

However the majority of plastic waste still ends up dumped in landfill, accounting for 58 per cent in 2019, down from 78 per cent in 2016.

"Inadequate waste separation-at-source practices result in potentially recyclable waste being landfilled, which is by far the most expensive solution in financial and environmental terms," it warned.

The NAO blamed the low recycling rate on inadequate infrastructure, due to the loss of Malta's only recyclable waste sorting facility in Sant Antnin in a 2017. Inefficient separation at source and contaminated material were also among the "operational challenges" it said. 

On the implementation of strategies, the NAO says that a number of key policies are still awaiting government approval and adoption, while the Environment Ministry says it has been unable to secure funds to commission relevant studies. 

“Unless, such resources are made available, national entities will not be in a position to implement the measures outlined in the strategic framework.” the report says.

Video: National Audit Office

Government shouldering financial burden

The report also found that the government is shouldering the majority of the costs related to plastic waste management, despite Malta having adopted a ‘polluter pays’ policy with respect to plastic packaging, which stipulates that waste generators are liable for the waste that they generate. 

“Despite the intention that government’s role in waste management would be that of an operator of last resort, in practice market conditions constrain government in assuming responsibility for most of the waste management operations related to Municipal Solid Waste,” the report reads. 

It said government remains the principal stakeholder in WasteServ, and through the €25 million annual subvention it grants to the company, it directly assumes financial responsibility for 86 per cent of waste treatment operations. 

Additionally, the NAO found that WasteServ is compensating producers in grants more than the amount of revenue it generates from plastic recycling. Additionally the sale of recycled plastic did not offset the cost of waste treatment operations, which is why the annual grant is necessary in order to keep operation running smoothly. 

Meanwhile landfilling remained the costliest activity carried out by WasteServ, with €209,437,156 in 2018 on total infrastructural costs related to landfilling. 

“It is clear that the current state of affairs is not contributing to enable Malta to adopt further principles of the circular economy,” the report comments.

“The €0.5 billion investment in the waste management infrastructure is in itself a more than needed injection in this sector. However, exploiting the full potential of such an investment necessitates behavioural changes by all waste generators, who in turn, depend on the coordination of the political, administrative and stakeholders’ efforts and their collective goodwill.”

Recommendations

In its report the NAO also put forward a number of recommendations to address the highlighted issues:

  • Shorten the time it takes to compile and publish waste management data;
  • Authorities should work together to accurately determine how much plastic is placed on the market;
  • Rework the gate fees for landfilling in line with the 'polluters pay 'principle and in a way that reflects the actual cost of waste management;
  • Environment ministry should hasten its adoption of plastic waste strategies for the period of 2021-2030;
  • Government and Packaging Waste Recovery Schemes should revise their compensation to reflect the cost of treating packaging waste;
  • Waste separation at source should improve through national policies and liaising with producers to include disposal instructions on products, paired with an awareness campaign;
  • Authorities should consider making waste separation at source mandatory;
  • Find ways to reduce the amount of mixed (black bag) waste being landfilled while the appropriate waste treatment infrastructure is concluded;
  • Authorities to consider legislative interventions to reduce the production of plastic waste.

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