Malta is a fascinating place. Just in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, a tiny limestone rock populated for more than 6,000 years. Multiple civilizations and nations have conquered these isles; the last ones were the British, for 136 years, until the Maltese independence in 1964. Now Malta is part of the European Union and faces a huge challenge: to comply with all the European Union requirements of its new foreign masters. But Malta is a country with a unique situation: its small size (similar to the Isla of Wight in the UK), coupled with a population over 400,000 plus 1.8 Million tourists per year makes Malta one of the most densely populated places in the world with an economy mainly based on the tourism industry (42% of its GDP is based on tourism).
The biggest environmental challenges for Malta in the next few years will be to increase renewable energy provision, upgrade the wastewater treatment facilities and find a sustainable way to deal with the waste on the islands.
Before Malta joined the European Union, the waste management situation was quite chaotic. A few years ago the government of the time decided to place a mixture of organic and construction and demolition waste in a particular rural area of the island. Taking into account that Malta is limestone rock which creates an arid and unproductive soil for agriculture, it was aimed to generate the base for an agricultural land cover, to eventually create a better environment by transforming rocky land into agricultural areas. But what finally happened, far from the original objective, is that organic waste was mixed with inorganic waste and everything was dumped in that place, creating what now is known as Maghtab dump site, which was the only permissible place in the island to put waste until very recently. The site is not equipped with a gas collection system and is continuously on fire, with a core temperature of around 200˚C, being a serious health hazard in one of the most touristic areas in Malta. This mountain of waste is located in the coast line, only 700 meters from 4 and 5 stars hotels in a very popular area of the island.
Maghtab dump site was closed and a new engineering landfill site is being built adjacent to it. But the capacity of this new landfill site is estimated to be only for 7 years more. There is no space to enlarge the new landfill site and it would be very difficult to find a place for a new landfill site as land is scarce and expensive. One of the biggest challenges for Malta is to find the right place to build new waste treatment plants. Most of the areas in the island are either environmentally sensitive or very close to residential and touristic areas.
Since joining the EU, Malta has to comply with the Landfill Directive by reducing the amount of organic waste going to landfill by 35% of 1995 levels by 2016. Steps have been taken to reach this target and in the last years few changes have been put into practice regarding the waste collection systems: Introduction of bring sites, Civic Amenity Sites and a weekly collection of recyclables which was introduced with a successful campaign called ‘Recycle Tuesdays’. Now public has a great awareness on the issue – especially due to the great visual impact of the “mountain-landfill” of Maghtab- and a lot of people seem to follow the new practices. The cost of collection and separation is still very high for the government and new financial arrangements should be carried out. For instance, local authorities in Malta pay to the government 0.77€ per tonne of MSW collected, whereas it is estimated that the collection, transport and landfill of waste cost the government 25 € per tonne. Maltese people do not pay a specific tax for the waste management and the concept of “landfill tax” is non-existent.
As a result of the EU landfill Directive and the lack of available space on the island, WasteServ (the public company in charge of the waste in Malta) decided to build an MBT plant with a capacity of 71,000 tonnes of household waste per year; 36,000 tonnes of dry recyclables and 35,000 tonnes of organic waste materials. The MBT is aided by the EU with funding of about 16.75 Million € and is part of the Waste Management Plan of Malta which aims to fulfill the demands of the European legislation. The sorting process of the dry recyclables is designed for waste streams which are source segregated by households and bring sites (paper, plastic, glass and metal). Waste is sorted both manually and utilising typical MBT plant technology to generate clean and segregated products: paper and cardboard; plastics and metals. Waste collection becomes of great importance in order to divert waste from landfill towards a closed cycle economy, by obtaining good quality recycled materials which are exportable to other countries for recycling (mainly to China and Pakistan).
On completion, the biowaste fraction will be separated for biological treatment. However, other forms of biowaste such as garden and food waste are still entering the waste stream with the municipal solid waste (MSW). It is estimated that by mid 2009 the plant will generate biogas from the fermented organic waste fraction which will be utilised on an adjacent combined heat and power plant. This plant will deliver electrical energy supplying up to 1,400 households. To deal with the odour emitted from the plant, a Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer (RTO) will be included on the site and treat the emissions from the different sections of the entire plant before releasing them to the atmosphere.
Nevertheless, this MBT plant is not enough to treat the 230,000 tonnes of waste that Malta generates annually. Wasteserv plans to build another MBT plant in the north of the island. Once the plants are finished, the Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) generated in the MBT process will be landfilled. Curently, there is no planed energy from waste facility in Malta which could take the RDF. Bearing in mind that landfill capacity in Malta is estimated to be only 7 years more, it seems sensible to consider other alternatives for the RDF such as exporting it to neighboring countries until an energy from waste facility is built on the island.
Fresh water issues
Malta’s average rainfall of 500 mm coupled with the rainless summers typical from the Mediterranean Climate, do not generate enough fresh water supply for the permanent population plus tourism. Therefore, the freshwater demand is satisfied by desalinating almost 50% of the freshwater consumption. There are four reverse osmosis plants on the island which are highly energy intensive (7% of the energy provision of the island is used in the desalination of water).
Malta has a 100% of the population connected to the drainage and water supply network but the 3 existing waste water treatment plants are not coping very well with the sewage produced and almost 87% of the waste water is being discharged into the sea untreated. Another problem with the water system in Malta is that the drainage system is very old and was designed for a small population. During peak tourist time and during flash floods, the drainage cannot cope with the water load and it causes road flooding with serious traffic jams.
Malta currently has two oil fired power stations. The renewable energy provision remains negligible. Considering that the mean bright sunshine in Malta is up to 12 hours in July (a minimum of 5 hours during December and January) Malta has a huge potential to develop solar energy. Steps have been taking and the new Civic Amenity sites are equipped with solar panels and wind turbine. Hopefully this is the first step for a more sustainable energy provision in Malta.
Waste, water and energy issues are the pillars of sustainability for Malta. In the short period of time since joining the EU Malta has made substantial progress however there is still a long way to go. Given the limited resources of Malta and the dependence on tourism it is important for the country to go beyond the minimum requirements of the EU legislation. As a small country with a positive attitude towards the environment, Malta is capable of rising to the challenges given the suitable technical support and financial backing.
This article was publish in the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management Magazine after Silvia a course ‘Waste In the Social Environment’ financed by the European Union programme Marie Curie Actions.