The Malta Independent 5 June 2023, Monday
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Waste-to-Energy incinerator: Not the solution for the waste management crisis in Malta

Thursday, 2 December 2021, 08:24 Last update: about 3 years ago

Mantas Stockus

The discussion about the future of the landfill in Maghtab continues to be a hot potato on the table of the Minister for the Environment, Climate Change & Planning since the lifespan of the landfill began to shorten up to a decade. As the answer to the public plea, in 2020 the government announced the project of new waste management facilities in Maghtab combined of waste-to-energy and clinical-and-abattoir waste incinerators; management of dry recyclable, treatment of organic waste to extract energy and production of compost for the use in agriculture plants. The most pressing of all is the construction of the waste-to-energy incinerator meant to ease the load of household waste – the landfill receives daily – that cannot be effectively recycled. As waste-to-energy incinerators are ‘so efficient in this day and age that they are located in the centre of communities,’ according to Aaron Farrugia, Environment, Climate Change and Planning Minister, it is easy to trip over their presentation as the solution for the current waste management crises Malta faces and hence, forget to move up the waste hierarchy pyramid. 


Historically, waste has been burned for centuries to reduce the amount of rubbish in landfill sites. With the rise of the industrial revolution and rapid urbanisation, cities were faced with the increase amount of urban waste and because of it the spread of various diseases. The first waste incinerator was built in 1874 in Nottingham, UK, as a response to the cholera epidemic and the practise of disposal as the main function of waste incinerators carried out throughout the 20th century. At the end of it, with the rise of the public concern about the environmental impact, most of the old ones were shutdown, especially when ‘the EU began to recognise the potential impact of waste management on climate change’ and implement ‘stringent emissions limit, monitoring, waste reception and treatment standards.’ Since then, the priority of waste incinerators has become recycling and the extraction of energy from the household waste that cannot be reused or recycled and, consequently, is landfilled as a result.

In Malta a single person generates around 679kg of waste per year, out of which 9% (61kg) is recycled and 91% (618kg) landfilled. That is, taking into consideration the whole island, 320 tonnes of waste ending up in Maghtab landfill. The amount that, with the incinerator in place, has a potential to be converted into usable energy, reducing the reliance on external energy providers and minimising greenhouse gas emissions.   

Although, modern waste-to-energy incinerators are obliged to meet strict emission standards, by many, they are still perceived as ‘large plants emitting plumes of dark, dangerous smoke into the air’, which is rarely the case nowadays. In EU, the emission standards are extremely tight and waste-to-energy incinerators must meet strict limits on waste gases, for this reason, a well-maintained incinerator ‘contributes only a small fraction of both local and national particulate’. Compared with the uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions from landfill sites, such incinerator is a better solution from the environmental perspective, but not, of course, the finest.

The attractiveness of a waste-to-energy incinerators lies in its ability to reduce disposal costs and limit the amount of landfilled waste by 95%, thus, decrease the dependency on a Maghtab landfill in the future. For Malta, small and with a shortage of land, a waste-to-energy incinerator is a way to save land for productive uses instead of landfilling it. Likewise, waste-to-energy incinerators limit and control odour unlike landfill ‘where waste is allowed to decay, thereby emitting unpleasant smells, which cause air pollution.’ An issue the residents of Maghtab village are well aware of. Above all, a waste-to-energy incinerator prevents the production of methane gas, eliminates harmful germ and chemicals, and doesn’t contaminate groundwater that is the case during precipitation in landfill sites, producing leachate from a thick slurry of liquid rubbish. 

The main argument against the construction of the waste-to-energy incinerator – besides the air pollution, eyesore of the landscape and the need to ‘feed’ the plant with waste – is to focus on the advancement of the recycling practises instead of building a plant that won’t ‘solve Malta’s poor recycling rates’, which currently stands at 9%, according to the latest statistics. Nonetheless, the global practise has shown that recycling isn’t as effective as most of us believe: ‘Due to cross contamination or incorrect materials, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste sorted in homes and offices for recycling will still get sent to landfill.’ As an example, 43% of municipal waste sent to waste treatment facilities was rejected and, therefore, landfilled in Malta. Subsequently, such materials as plastic and paper have a limited number of recycling cycles before they end up in a landfill. At the end, one way or another, most of the materials, recycled or not, end up in the Maghtab landfill. Does this mean that Malta should drop the idea of recycling? No. It should simply acknowledge the fact that, now, it is better to replace the landfill with the waste-to-energy incinerator in the local waste management hierarchy and, in the meantime, work on long-term aims of reusage and reduction.

Following the pattern above, waste-to-energy incinerators are expensive, considering construction and regular maintenance costs to keep it at a high operational level. Even though incinerators are obliged to meet strict emission standards, they produce smoke, which despite filters reach the environment, containing a potential hazard for the public health.   

The biggest threat of a waste-to-energy incinerator construction in Malta is its presentation as the solution for the waste management crisis that will only postpone, but not solve it. Certainly, burning waste can encourage the rise in consumption and as a result waste production, which, when reading the news, the rest of the world is trying to reduce to a minimum. Reusage and reduction instead of recycling, incineration and landfilling should be a priority for this and any future government. Even though, a waste-to-energy incinerator has many short-term benefits, in a long run it can reveal devastating issues for the environment and the residents of the island.



Mantas Stockus is a Malta-based Lithuanian. He has an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Criticism from the University of Malta. Mantas is particularly interested in thought-provoking writing and haiku poetry.  





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