The closure of the Magħtab rubbish dump back in April 2004 was undoubtedly a major environmental milestone for the country. Tell this to anyone, and they will agree. What people may not understand however is just how much progress has been made in this field in less than a decade.
Between 1980 and 1989, it is estimated that roughly 900,000 tonnes of waste were deposited at Magħtab – a yearly average of 90,000 tonnes mainly attributed to construction and demolition waste. The figure shot up to over 13 million tonnes in the following decade, while the yearly average from 1990 till its closure was roughly 1,200,000 tonnes per year. This resulted in a huge dumping zone of impressive proportions – roughly 30 hectares in area (more or less equivalent to the size of 45 football grounds) and around 30 storeys high.
So when the Magħtab dump was shut down, the country clearly needed an alternative resting place for our daily waste, and this was needed immediately. The temporary solution was Ta’ Żwejra landfill, followed by the larger Għallis landfill in 2006.
Though both are located in the vicinity of the old Magħtab dump, these engineered landfills are nothing like the old rubbish dump. A key characteristic of engineered landfills is the composite lining system used to protect the underlying rock, soils and groundwater from being polluted. Landfills are also equipped with leachate collection systems to collect contaminated water, and gas collection systems to collect the harmful greenhouse gases which are produced naturally by organic waste.
Hence the environmental complex found at Magħtab today differs tremendously to the old dumping culture which prevailed prior to Malta’s accession into the EU. Furthermore, through an EU-funded project managed by WasteServ, the site of the old Magħtab dump is being rehabilitated and turned into a recreational open space for the general public. Two other disused dumpsites located at Sant’Antnin in Marsascala and Qortin in Gozo are also to be rehabilitated, with a fully-equipped 86,000m2 Family Park expected to open in Marsascala next year.
Ing. Saviour Abela, WasteServ’s Chief Executive Officer, says “ The rehabilitation of the older dumpsites is like putting a seal on the past practices of indiscriminate dumping and the ill effects that result from it. The Eur 26 million to be spent on these projects will be ensuring the best restoration of the three sites in order to be able to give them back to the public from where they have been taken so long ago. It is situations like these that remind us how precious any landfill is and how we must take good care of it to ensure we get the best possible lifespan out of it. This is why construction waste is disposed of separately in appropriate quarries and why all forms of recycling are ensuring that less and less material ends up in the landfill. But to recycle is not enough and we must now go the extra step which means avoid waste generation as and where possible.” .
In less than a decade, since the closure of the Magħtab dump, there has been huge progress in terms of waste management infrastructure. Bring-in sites were introduced in each locality for the public to dispose of their glass, plastic, paper and metal. Later, in May 2008, the system was enhanced by means of the ‘Recycle Tuesdays’ initiative through which the collection of plastic, paper and metal for recycling became available on a door-to-door basis, thus further reducing the amount of household waste being landfilled.
Additionally, five Civic Amenity sites, located in Magħtab, Mrieħel, Ħal-Luqa, Ħal-Far and Xewkija Gozo, were introduced between 2007 and 2009. Through these facilities, WasteServ managed to collect more than 84,000 tonnes of separated bulky waste from households. This includes furniture, tyres, mattresses and a large amount of waste known as ‘WEEE’ (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) which is classified as hazardous waste. At one Civic Amenity site alone – that in Mrieħel – over 22,000 items of WEEE were collected last year, consisting mainly of televisions, computers and monitors, fridges, washing machines and water heaters. In the past, such hazardous waste used to be dumped directly at Magħtab or simply disposed of illegally in the countryside, thus contaminating the environment. Nowadays, this hazardous waste is either exported for recycling overseas or stored in safe facilities.
Another important milestone was the development of the Sant’Antnin Waste Treatment Plant, which started its operations in 2008 and was inaugurated in November 2010. This plant incorporates various facilities for the management of recyclable waste streams, including the Material Recovery Facility where dry recyclables are hand-sorted, assisted by machinery, and then prepared in large bales for sale and export. In 2011, WasteServ sold almost 15,000 tonnes of recyclable material collected at this facility, thus turning our waste into a resource for the country and simultaneously prolonging the life of Għallis.
The Sant’Antnin plant also comprises a Mechanical Treatment Plant for the conversion of municipal solid waste (better known as the ‘black bag’) into compost. This too creates multiple benefits: firstly, the waste is being diverted from Għallis landfill, hence further extending its lifespan; secondly, the compost is being used for the rehabilitation projects of the closed dumps; and finally, clean energy is being generated through the collection and treatment of methane gases in an Anaerobic Digestion Plant which also forms part of the facility at Sant’Antnin.
As facilities and services for recycling increased, the amount of waste being landfilled started to drop. In 2011, the total amount of mixed household waste deposited at Għallis was roughly 112,000 tonnes. Though this compares extremely well to dumping figures during the 1990s, there are still challenges ahead, and more attention to sustainable waste practices is needed in order to safeguard our environment and avoid the need for another landfill in the future. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure!
In fact it is no coincidence that in the phrase ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ the famous 3 Rs are placed in that order. Waste prevention must be first priority at all times. Reuse is the next best option. In this case, plastic bags may be reused for your next shopping or as garbage bags. Recycling should always be third choice, while disposal should be kept as a last resort.
To learn more about landfilling in Malta and how you can contribute towards sustainable waste management, contact WasteServ on Freephone 8007 2200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Free training sessions as well as educational site visits to the various WasteServ facilities are organised for interested groups. The public may also visit the WasteServ Information Centre at City Gate Arcade, Valletta.