Plastic waste

The National Audit Office was forced to conclude that "inadequate waste separation-at-source practices result in potentially recyclable waste being landfilled".

The production of plastic worldwide has grown exponentially in just a few decades – from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 400 million tonnes in 2022.  EU production is just 57.2 million tonnes, since most of its needs are met by China.  But the fact that, in western Europe, average annual plastic consumption is around 150kg per person  more than twice the global average of 60kg — has led to a huge challenge in disposing of plastic waste: it amounts to around 26 million tonnes annually in the EU. 

In Europe, around 25% of all plastic waste is landfilled.  Another 43% is used for energy recovery while 32% is recycled.  A number of issues complicate plastic recycling: the quality and price of the recycled product, compared with their unrecycled counterpart; the large quantities of recycled plastic required by processing plants; the diversity of the raw material; and strictly controlled manufacturing specifications and competitive pricing.  Consequently, the demand for recycled plastics is growing rapidly, though in 2018 it accounted for only 6% of plastics demand in Europe.

Half of the plastic collected for recycling is exported to be treated in countries outside the EU.  However, China’s decision in 2017 to ban the importation of most plastic waste and now the EU’s decision to ban such exports to poor countries, advocated also by Maltese MEP Cyrus Engerer, means that recycling has become even more of a challenge. The low share of plastic recycling in the EU means significant losses for the bloc’s economy as well as for the environment.

Looking at Malta, one obtains some idea of what is happening from a report headed ‘The effectiveness of plastic waste management in Malta’, tabled in Parliament by the National Audit Office.  In 2019 we generated 38,300 tonnes of plastic waste and 9,468 tonnes of plastic refuse-derived fuel, the majority of which was dumped in landfill – 58%, though down from 78% in 2016.  Only 1% was recycled.  The NAO was forced to warn that Malta is “lagging behind” in reaching national and EU targets.  In fact, whereas we have an EU target of almost 23%, the proportion that is being recycled is 19.2%.

According to the NSO, Malta’s exports of plastic waste soared during the same period.  The NSO quotes a figure of 42,800 tonnes of plastic waste being generated – 15,408 tonnes lower than the NAO, though this might be because the NAO’s figure does not include non-recyclable plastics. Of the 42,800 tonnes of plastic waste some 36% was exported, up from 10% the previous year and 1% in 2016.

In commenting on the waste separation and recycling situation, the NAO was forced to conclude that “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 also lamented that the government was shouldering the “lion’s share” of waste management costs, overriding the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

Of course, since then there have been improvements.  The Beverage Container Refund Scheme (BCRS) has been a big success.  In June it was reported to have hit the 100 million container recycling milestone, ensuring that 70% of all beverage containers are recovered. This still leaves 30%, or around 289,300 containers per day, not being recovered.  The projected installation of large capacity hubs should go a long way to reducing that number.

Meanwhile, Wasteserve is pushing forward its green circular economy agenda as it implements the largest-ever investment at half-a-billion euro in Malta’s waste management infrastructure.  This is a vital investment but, as the NAO has warned, it will still not deliver its full potential unless it is complemented with the increased adoption of circular economy principles. The health and environmental risks of plastic can only be mitigated through a consorted effort by all stakeholders, including political, administrative, the industry, and consumers, as well as an effort to reduce its production at the outset.

Need copper?

Back in September, Aurubis, which accounts for around 30% of Europe’s production of copper, discovered that it had been the target of a huge theft, with damages running into hundreds of millions of euros.  The exact figure was not revealed but was said to be around €180 million. The company warned that, as a result, it would not achieve the profit it had forecast for the year, while the value of its shares plunged by 12% in a single day.

This is nothing new.  Theft by criminal gangs in Germany has alarmed the public and businesses. German railway operator Deutsche Bahn’s precarious funding is being additionally burdened by a rising number of copper thefts that in 2022 alone cost the company about €6.6 million. According to German business daily Handelsblatt, this year copper thefts have already led to 2,644 train delays, totalling well over 700 hours.

Copper wiring and pipes are being regularly stolen from construction sites all over Europe. Even church roofs that are often laid with copper plates are no longer safe from acts of criminal wrongdoing.  Now, it is Malta’s turn.  A few weeks ago, a Marsascala man was caught red-handed attempting to steal underground copper cables in the early hours of the morning, with police also arresting two suspected accomplices. The suspects are believed to have cut through a fibre optic cable in their attempt to steal the copper, cutting off internet connectivity for GO Internet customers in Valletta and Floriana in the process.

Copper is a base metal that is used in multiple appliances and applications due to its good electrical conductivity. It’s become even more critical in the transformation of entire industries toward carbon neutrality, says Joachim Berlenbach, founder and CEO of the Earth Resource Investment (ERI) consultancy. He added that he has no doubt that “the demand for copper will increase massively in the future”.

Prices of copper have risen from €6.32 per kilo seven years ago to €122.30 per kilo this November.  There is simply not enough of this critical raw material, which is also the choice metal to achieve EU decarbonisation goals.  This makes it a target for criminals who want to make easy money.  Metal thieves mainly sell their contraband to dealers or professional buyers who then make illegal shipments to other countries.  The bulk of the stolen metals is no longer sold in Europe but goes overseas in containers.

So, the next time your Internet goes down, don’t automatically blame it on the service provider.  It could be that somebody camouflaged as a Go employee has dug up the street across the road from you and helped himself to some of the shiny stuff.

Grey hazard

It seems that certain people in Malta have problems in understanding that the grey recycling bags are not meant, literally, to be filled with a broken bicycle.  Neither is it there so you can throw away a gas cylinder, a long knife, or an industrial fan.  Not to mention highly flammable or hazardous objects.  Yet, all these items have been found by Wasteserve in the bags, posing a threat of injury to people or damage of the equipment used in recycling plants.

It is incredible that, after several publicity campaigns and TV advertising, people still think the grey bag is there to dispose of a broken TV, the camping stove, animal heads and internal organs, bulky children’s toys, Chinese flares, and every imaginable object that could, instead, be collected by the local councils’ bulk disposal service or be carried to a bulk disposal facility.

But the thoughtless and irresponsible behaviour is not limited to households.  According to Wasteserve’s CEO, some shops and businesses also fail in separating waste properly, with a third of the black bags containing material that should have been thrown in the organic bag.

It seems that education on its own will not do the trick.  Better enforcement and heavier fines seem to be required in order to bring a much-needed culture change.

Blame Alexa

Amazon is going to lay off hundreds of employees working on Alexa, its voice-assistant service.  According to Daniel Rausch, a vice-president at the e-commerce giant, the cuts are part of a shift towards using more generative artificial intelligence (GAI) – the AI capable of generating text, images, or other media, using generative models. 

It has been more than a decade since Jeff Bezos excitedly sketched out his vision for Alexa on a whiteboard at Amazon’s headquarters. His voice assistant would help do all manner of tasks, such as shop online, control gadgets, or even read kids a bedtime story. But the Amazon founder’s grand vision of a new computing platform controlled by voice has fallen short.

For many users, Alexa is just viewed as a “glorified clock radio”, notes independent tech analyst Benedict Evans.  Whether Alexa is ready to die, however, is another question.  Amazon says that it remains committed to Alexa.  Some experts think that Alexa might get a second lease of life from GAI itself, since the technology has the potential to bring voice assistants back on the track towards the original sci-fi goal.


The NAO was forced to conclude that "inadequate waste separation-at-source practices result in potentially recyclable waste being landfilled.

Plastic waste ▪️ Need copper ▪️
Photo: Alex Davidson-ICC/ICC via Getty Images

Main photo: Ron Lach

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