Over a decade from the ‘plastic invasion’, a recycling breakthrough

Today, four of every five drink containers used in Malta are thrown away and not recycled, despite the high environmental cost of producing plastic and a wealth of information on the need for recycling

Malta used to be an island whose consumers eagerly recycled glass bottle containers – a refund system ensured the collection of glass bottles by soft drinks retailers, that would wash them and refill them for re-use.

The liberalisation of the market and the introduction of plastic PET containers after EU accession in 2004 changed everything. Malta then had 55 million glass bottles in circulation, which were replaced in their entirety by plastic bottles. Labour leader Alfred Sant, campaigning against EU membership in 2002, had warned of a plastic “invasion”.

Today, four of every five drink containers used in Malta are thrown away and not recycled, despite the high environmental cost of producing plastic and a wealth of information on the need for recycling.

And when it comes to cans? 19 out of every 20 are not being recycled.

With the country struggling to meet its recycling targets, the government has announced plans to implement a bottle recovery scheme that aims to increase the rate of recycling of drink containers to 70% by 2020.

Environment minister Jose Herrera says the government wants the scheme to “instil a change in mentality in the population”. And with good reason.

At 14%, Malta’s rate of drink bottle recycling is far lower than countries like the UK which recycles 57% of containers used and which recently also declared its intention to implement a similar system.

The Maltese scheme, developed by environmental consultants Euromia, will see producers obliged to add a €0.10c deposit to the price of drinks, which consumers can get back by placing the used container in a reverse vending machine (RVM).

The operator of the scheme, to be chosen by tender, will install a minimum of 350 RVMs around Malta and Gozo for the scheme to work – roughly one RVM for every 1,500 people on the island, including tourists.

Similar systems exist in many countries around the world, including 15 EU countries, a majority of Canadian and Australian states, and 10 US states, all of which have implemented or announced plans to implement some form of bottle refund system.

While most countries have faced resistance from retailers and producers, who understandably fear a drop in sales as a result of higher prices, in the vast majority of places where schemes have been implemented, recovery rates tend to exceed 70%. Germany, Norway and Sweden, for example, all recover over 90% of the drink containers used.

While some schemes were not immediately successful, small changes can make a big difference and help achieve better results. For instance, Oregon’s recovery scheme initially had a 59% recovery rate, but when the deposit paid per container was increased, the recovery rate rose to 82%.

Finding the right balance

The former CEO of the Water Services Corporation Marc Muscat – today a consultant to Herrera – says the key to a successful scheme is finding a balance between a deposit price that is high enough to incentivise people to use the system, while ensuring the machines are convenient and easy to use.

The authorities, he said, wanted to avoid having to force people to use the machines by raising the deposit price too high.

At €0.10c, the deposit being proposed for Malta is similar to the €0.63c paid in Australia, €0.22c in Germany and the €0.10c in Norway, but it is not a guarantee that Malta will experience the same positive results.

The plan is to oblige owners of shops larger than 150sq.m. to house RVMs but given that a good part of the scheme’s details will depend on the selected operator, it is not clear where the 350 machines will be placed: would outdoors-RVMs encourage more recycling as bring-in sites do for different sorts of trash?

“A lot will depend on the creativity of the bidders for the project,” Muscat said when asked about locations being considered, and whether machines would be placed in public spaces.

He acknowledged that an individual walking in the street might not bother entering a shop to throw away a bottle, but stressed that there were many potential locations that were convenient for consumers.

Muscat hopes diligent users of the RVMs will condition others to think twice before discarding bottles irresponsibly. It’s definitely a question of communal effort. “You could hold on to a bottle and keep it in your car and deposit it when you’re at the next service station,” he says, by way of example. “So, if someone still decides to litter, at least others have an incentive to pick it up.”

The successful RVM bidder will also be responsible to ensure a 70% recovery rate by 2020, against the threat of penalties.

The request for proposals for the RVM tender in June has already stoked some disquiet: the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri has had to play down links to his business partner’s interest in RVM technology. Malcolm Scerri is general manager of Schembri’s Kasco Holdings Ltd. Scerri owns 100% of the company Thoughtzone Ltd, which in turn wholly owns Acumen Projects Limited, which officially represents Norwegian company Tomra, market pioneers in reverse vending technology.

In comments to the Times, the OPM insisted that Schembri had nothing to do directly or indirectly with Tomra or any other company that could supply reverse recycling vending machines.

“Any suggestions to that effect were false and malicious,” it said.

 

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