Sociologist, local councillor, activist from Malta

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why Malta needs a clean-up

(This article originally appeared as 'Summer Rain Brings Relief')
Times of Malta 24 August 2015
http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20150824/opinion/Summer-rain-brings-relief.581764



The rain in the past days might have spoilt some summer events, yet it also brought some relief in other quarters. Indeed, public discourse that featured quite prominently referred to the rain’s cleaning of the streets, pavements, beaches and promenades.

Malta does not seem to be coping with the increased volume of waste littering every corner of the island, albeit being more pronounced in certain areas. The summer season, where tourism numbers increase, makes matters much worse.

All sort of rubbish is accumulating. Dog pooh, plastic bottles, loose construction bricks, garbage bags galore, odd household appliances, you name it. No wonder Facebook pages dedicated to rubbish are being set up, powered by mobile and smartphone technology.

The accumulation of rubbish adds up to the lot of vacant buildings, including those in a dilapidated state, which have unfortunately become a permanent eyesore in Malta. The same can be said of industrial areas, from Mrieħel to Ħal-Far, parts of which are suitable for film scenes of ruin. Maybe it wasn’t a surprise that Malta was recently chosen for the filming of scenes for a film in war-torn Libya.

The accumulation of rubbish and dilapidation is not only adding up to the uglification of Malta but has other negative impacts too. Think of persons with disability, those with pushchairs and elderly people whose access is impaired due to the occupation of walking spaces by rubbish.

Think of the impact on tourism, a pillar of the Maltese economy. It is true that, quite often, some tourists themselves add to the mess but, if anything, this only means that the problem requires even more attention.

The current state of policymaking and implementation does not help things. Local councils tend to spend a substantial amount of their limited budgets to waste management but the battle is draining their resources. The fact that councils cannot generate revenue and remain dependent on minsters’ priorities for various services does not help.

Green wardens come at a high expense to local councils, thus making use of their services prohibitive. Such wardens do impose fines on offenders, and rightly so, but enforcement is the exception, not the rule. The upcoming centralisation of wardens within a government entity will not improve matters in terms of local council management.

It would make much more sense to have a decentralised warden system managed by councils, whereby a substantial amount of revenue from fines is used for the benefit of the locality rather than to feed an expanding bureaucracy. Unfortunately, however, subsidiarity does not seem to be on government’s agenda.

The waste problem reveals another challenge for Maltese society: that of having stronger communities.

When people litter public space one notes a lack of civic pride. Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain had referred to this as “amoral familism” when referring to Malta and I would imagine American sociologist Robert Putnam would relate this to the breakdown of social capital.

In the case of the latter, social networks are threatened by an ever-increasing rise of individualism and unconnected individ-uals. A striking example that many can relate to is having neighbours in apartment blocks putting out garbage bags at untimely hours despite having clear signs in the condominium with rubbish collection times. Or having dog pooh on pavements in front of schools.

The increase in food waste, from milkshakes to half-bitten burgers, from pizza boxes to cans and bottles, is also a main reason why pigeons are increasing at a level almost similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Many people complain about their presence and even about rats roaming the streets at night but what about human behaviour, which is actually attracting such animals?

Hence, investing in education and social capital is just as important as enforcement. The former can have a cultural effect whereas the latter is more immediate, provided that it is not tarnished by political patronage.

The fact that such policy-making is so low on Malta’s national agenda reveals that quality of life is second fiddle to other concerns. I can only sigh when I hear ministers speaking of Malta as a hub of excellence, high worth and what have you.

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