Sustainable solutions in waste and water management

18 min read

Kevin Gatt heads the Department of Spatial Planning and Infrastructure at the University of Malta.  He specializes in resource governance in particular water and waste management.  He has extensive experience in water, waste, environment and sustainable development policy making having worked for many years in the public administration.

Kevin Gatt heads the Department of Spatial Planning and Infrastructure at the University of Malta.  He specializes in resource governance in particular water and waste management.  He has extensive experience in water, waste, environment and sustainable development policy making having worked for many years in the public administration.

With us today is Kevin Gatt. Kevin heads the Department of Spatial Planning and Infrastructure at the University of Malta. He specializes in resource governance, in particular water and waste management.

He has extensive experience in water, waste, environment, and sustainable development policy having worked for many years in the public administration, he describes himself as unassuming yet dependable.

In today's podcast, we aim at bringing awareness about water and waste management, both public and private, so that we may be more conscious of our impact and ensure proper use of our resources.

So Kevin, it is lovely to have you here with us today. Thank you so much.

My pleasure.

The first thing that comes to mind really is the importance of water, the resource and its management. In all countries of the world really, but especially in a country which is so dry, so arid, such as Malta. How important is water to a country like ours which is classified as being so arid?

I think if we had to start with the cliche that water is life, I think it sets a suitable backdrop to understand the importance of water to each and every one of us to our communities to different countries. In Malta, as you rightly say, we are in arid country with an annual rainfall of around about 550 ml. Throughout the years we have seen an increased dependency on desalinization technology in order to provide our freshwater resources to meet the ever-increasing demands that have arisen due to quality of life, our economic progress, our increasing population and the like.

But this also shows us that had technology not been available, Malta as a country would not have had sufficient water resources in order to satisfy its demands, and therefore this would have a curtailing effect on economic growth, on the population we can support, and therefore this signifies the importance of water to each and every person. I think if we had to look at the different economic sectors, I can safely say that there is probably not one economic sector which does not have some form of nexus on water, whether it is dependent on that water for its production, or whether it uses water in order to support its employees. So I doubt whether any person in any country can dismiss the importance of water or as a matter of speaking to say that he does not need water.

Wow, and this really brings to heart the issue of how sustainable we are with this resource. In some countries a little bit more lacking than in others and possibly even beyond sustainability, because we need to have a vision for resilience of how a society, how a country is resilient and how dependent, or they are on this on this resource. So, in this aspect, how can we start rethinking water and wastewater systems so that we can keep this sort of resilience in mind?

Ok, let me as a preamble say that what Malta and its engineers, particularly the engineers of the Water Services Corporation, has achieved with the salination is not just best in class, but I think they are European, Mediterranean and international experts in desalinization. They have truly saved Malta from problems related to water scarcity and have ensured that Malta can meet its demand. We've done it so well that to a certain extent we have been led into a false sense of security, because European directives place upon us the obligation not to look at freshwater in terms of the water we produce through desalination - which I like to call manufactured water - but freshwater resources. In particularly groundwater resources.

It is important to say that the mix of potable water today is in the region of, and I'm rounding numbers for the benefit of our audience, 60% is desalinated water and 40% is groundwater. That is sort of the makeup of the water which we receive through our mains from the water services corporation, but there is a lot of use of direct groundwater, whether it is for agricultural purposes, whether it is for secondary, or what I like to call non-potable use which has over the years created a significant drawdown in the volumes of groundwater to the extent that at this rate we are in particularly our mean sea level aquifers, that means our largest two aquifers in Malta and in Gozo which float on seawater, have been depleted to compromise to a certain extent, their quality and quantity.

We are abstracting far more water than we are putting back in, and as a consequence of that, we are introducing seawater into this aquifer and increasing its salinity, and therefore we are compromising its quality.

Now where should we be going from here? The model of perfection is in nature itself. Anthropogenic effects, that means that effects which are attributed to human beings, are the cause of this disturbance in the balance that exists in these freshwater bodies which we call aquifers. The fact that I develop a piece of land means that I am converting that land from a permeable surface into an impermeable surface. This means that rainfall falling onto that parcel of land rather than soaking into the ground and eventually beginning a very long journey, 15 to 40 years, to go back to the aquifer is being discharged as stormwater and often lost.

So far, we have exploited conventional sources of water. By conventional sources of water, I mean desalination and groundwater. We now need to move towards exploiting more non-conventional sources of water. That means that we have to make better use of stormwater, we have to mimic nature when we develop portions of land so that we can re-engineer the balance that occurs in nature and we also need to exploit the non-conventional resource of sewage, which once again the Water Services Corporation has shown us, that it can treat to potable water quality albeit that today it’s still not used because there is an adjustment period for potable supplies. And therefore my message is that in the design of any form of physical development, we have to mimic nature. We have to learn how nature behaves and replicate those principles in our design. This is why from the time of the Knights, there was a legal obligation to have a cistern, a well which collected an annual volume of the rain discharged from roofs. Of course, at the time we used to draw or they used to draw a water from the well by hand. Today we have technology like pumps and therefore we can optimize the size of wells in order to enable us to save on the construction cost in the first place of work, because we don't need a well which is 0.6 times the impermeable area of a development and at the same time connect that to sources which depend on second class water supplies: toilet flushing, like draw off taps which are used for cleaning purposes, be it floors, be it the car or whatever and to satisfy any irrigation demand.

That is inspiring. I hope more people start looking at water not as just something, you know, like a commodity, that is there: We just open the tap and basically forget the tap open sometimes, while you're doing other stuff. So we really need to start looking at really, using this resource much more efficiently, both on a private and on a society level.

But I appreciate that water is not only the issue here, the management systems that we need to bring about on a public and private scale are both water and waste. And if I were to shift the conversation to waste, nowm most people just treat waste as waste. We throw it away. And in a society and in a world where you know resources are being more scarce, how can we? When I mean we, as in society, governments, whomever, treat waste differently, it can be treated as a resource rather than a just pure waste.

When President Gorbachev took over the former USSR, the Oxford Dictionary updated its compendium to include two critical words, ‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’. I wish that society today could influence the Oxford Dictionary to strike away the word waste from the dictionary. Precisely because it is a resource, and therefore whether it is the organic fraction, that means what is leftover as food remains, what we don't eat, what we, which food we discard in the preparation of our meals, whether it is the cuttings from the pruning of any plants we have all that is organic waste. And that organic waste, believe it or not, can be converted into both energy as well as a compost which can be used in agriculture and the new waste management plan foresees the construction of an organic processing plant which will pasteurise the ensuing digestate in order to produce the safe compost which can be used to improve the condition of our soils.

Sometimes if you look particularly towards northwest of our island, you see a sort of grey clumpy soil and that shows you that there is the presence of clay. This has problems in retaining water and therefore crops could suffer. By adding compost, we are adding an organic material, we are improving the condition of the soil, and we are at the same time improving the cultivation practice and the yields on our crops. The energy it produces is green energy, which contributes to our renewable energy targets. So the minute we shift from not disposing of our waste in the white bag which we have, and which is collected three times a week, and which is small because three times a week you don't really fill up a big black bag as we used to do.

When we fail to do our bit and to put the organic waste in the right bag, we are depriving ourselves, we are depriving future generations from the embedded energy from the potential of having this compost, as well, not only that, but we are taking away land which needs to be dedicated for land filling. And so, as you say, out of sight out of mind for waste should be something that we do not consider any longer. Because we have a role to play; it is our responsibility. After all, it is we who purchase the goods. It is we who consume the goods and therefore we are responsible for that waste. But it's not a question of just responsibility, it's a question of public good. If we truly believe we want a better society, a better country, a better land, whatever. The only thing we have to do is be responsible for how we manage our waste.

The same is with recyclables. We have a grey bag where we can put in metal, we can put in plastic, we can put in paper, we hope to be separating paper from the metal and under plastic so that the quality will improve and therefore it's right recyclability will be enhanced and all these materials are regenerated into new products rather than having to mine all the time natural resources causing depletion.

And for anyone who is familiar with, for example, the financial markets, the prices of commodities can fluctuate a lot. If there is a fear that they have become diminished in their supply. This is the law of supply and demand, so we can keep plundering nature. These are non-renewable resources unlike for example the sun and the rain which come every year. And therefore we need to manage our non-renewable resources by minimizing first and foremost the amount of waste we generate and that waste which generate we need to manage at source into their proper fractions so that we can enhance our recycling rate and convert them into new products and therefore transform waste into resource.

Yes, and in actual fact as you have just mentioned, this resource then becomes a product in itself, becomes something that we can use and therefore has a value. In terms of the valorisation of waste, are we looking at simply the entrepreneurs who will benefit from this? Or will also the individual? Can we give the individual some of this, so to say profit out of the value of this resource, of this waste resource?

Kevin: I believe it is a win-win situation. I mean, if you look into the amount of land that was taken up to accommodate dump and landfill sites, you will see that, particularly in a country of 316 square kilometres, we have sacrificed a lot of this area - considerable amount of this area - simply to dispose of waste. So, we have taken away. There is an opportunity cost in that land which could have been put, perhaps to better use for society. It could have been a park. It could have been a leisure facility could have been nature itself, embellished and enhanced. So, the fact that we are consuming land means we are depriving ourselves from land as a resource.

There is also the issue of emissions which results from waste. I'm not saying that we can go to a situation where we do not generate any waste, but yes we can go to a situation where we can enhance and boost our recycling rates so that the waste which is generated we fully absorb its resource value and transform it into a product which has commercial value and therefore we see that entrepreneurs militating in the waste management sector have plenty of opportunities to manage facilities related to waste management.

Let us also not forget and it is important to mention that our largest waste stream is that from the construction sector. And I'm referring to construction and demolition waste. And the University of Malta has been a leader in demonstrating how certain fractions of construction demolition waste can be transformed into reconstituted stone elements. I mean, this is a business opportunity. This is what the circular economy is all about, in that we achieve industrial symbiosis whereby the waste of a particular sector becomes the resource of that same sector or a different sector. We have exploited most of the commercial and traditional opportunities that we have available. It is now time to enhance our competitiveness by exploiting the potential which environmental design gives us -which eco design gives us - and transforming construction and demolition waste into the constituted stone elements has a lot of potential for us to reduce our extraction of limestone, safeguarding future generations to have access to that resource. But at the same time safeguarding the needs of the construction industry's demand for stone in a very circular manner. Of course, we also have to level the playing field and I refer to the economic playing field here, because unfortunately many a time we have still not had a perfect mechanism whereby we reflect the two cost of pollution in the various products and services so that recycled green circular products can compete on the same level as perhaps virgin products, but which virgin products need also to be factored in terms of the value of that virgin material as well as the cost of pollution that they create in transforming them from their raw stage into their products stage.

That is so interesting and if I may extend this argument in terms of the economy and looking at the various parts of the economy, such as tourism, hospitality, maybe I don't know other industries or the fashion industry. The electronic industry.

They too have a large impact on the quantity of waste and the type of waste that they produce. How can these companies, these brands, change the way of dealing with sustainability, from a brand perspective? How can they understand that or not or just understand, but how can they treat their resources in a different way? They waste resources in a different way. Such that they can actually benefit through that, so not just the construction industry, but the other areas of the economy.

Absolutely, and I've seen already some of the main and the leading designers already having some of their lines which they term as organic or sustainable and which contain a certain amount of recycled material. Be it fibre, be it rubber, it all depends on the product, so I think they are already being trendsetters by labelling a certain component of their range as sustainable, as recyclable. Different designers are giving different names.

Again, we need a regulatory framework that widens what today we call the producer responsibility principle, where a producer is responsible for recycling the products or a percentage of the amount of material in products that they place on the market. So far, we have producer responsibility in Malta on packaging waste, on electronic and electrical equipment, and we also have it on batteries. We need to understand and promote feasible producer responsibilities for example tyres, for textiles, for oil, whereby by imposing this producer responsibility regulatory framework, we drive those who place these products on the market to have to collect them and transform them into something a recycled version.

That means to deviate them from becoming waste, and although you might say, but that's going to cost money. Yes, it will cost money, but it will also make our choices more responsible. If I go to a restaurant and everything on the menu is free, I'm sure that most of us will pile up their plates beyond what they can eat. The same can apply for waste if there is no mechanism which forces you to, for example, recycle waste, then it is waste. It is not a resource. And therefore, throwing it away is the natural logic. But when you impose and I use a very, very strong word ‘impose’ a regulatory framework for producer responsibility, you create a business opportunity because there is a business opportunity in transforming that product with that it is retiring to playing material or into oil. Whether it is oil into new forms of oil, whether it is textiles into new forms of threads which can be re-woven into new products. This is a business opportunity, and that business opportunity will create employment.

And therefore this is where the beauty of sustainability is. We are maximizing economic, social, and environmental objectives. Sustainability is about promoting the economy of the world, growing the economy, but taking into account, the socio- ecological dimension, providing employment, providing well-being, providing a better quality of life whilst at the same time not impinging on the environment. So yes indeed. Indeed, there could be a cost, initially, but it is a one-time cost and it responsibilises everyone across the value chain. To make conscious choices to make green choices and eventually to make the right choices for society and for future generations.

Indeed, what you've just mentioned really hits on the majority of the sustainable goals, even the ones that the UN have, put forward for our attention because doing one little thing in one area of the society will have a repercussive effect on the various other parts of how society works.

And in this sense, I think we need to understand the importance of all of this, the sustainable, the nature based, the decarbonized solution and how these are important on our environment, right?

That's correct. I'm extremely pleased that you've touched upon the Sustainable Development Goals because unfortunately till this very day, there are many who think that sustainable development is some form of green movement. Sustainable development is not an environmental issue. Sustainable development should be a forma mentis, a mentality which we subscribe to. And although there is the classic Brundtland definition, it relates to how we can ‘satisfy our needs without compromising that of future generations’, the one catch phrase I like to use is this: that sustainable development, in any decision whatsoever, it is not a development issue. It's not a physical development issue. It is a developmental: the economy is a development, social well-being is a development, OK? We try to maximize economic, social, and environmental goals and if we look at the 17 SDG's, it is clear but some of them are of an economic nature, some of them are of a social nature and some of them are of an environmental nature.

The message here is sustainable development is a way of life. It is not something which is environmental. It is not a drag on the economy. On the contrary, sustainable development is about optimizing our decisions, so that the decisions we take can flourish. As opposed to having some form of boom-and-bust cycles of the economy.

Yes, definitely, food for thought. From today, I guess there are some very important takeaways that we need to highlight not only for the general public, but also for people in the design world and people in authority. If you were to highlight some of these main takeaways, some of these main points. What would they be? What would be these words of wisdom?

Kevin: Individual effort can never be underestimated. It is through the summation of individual behaviours that we achieve a collective success. If everyone of us had to separate waste, we will achieve higher recycling targets. If every development had to have a second-class water supply system which draws on the stormwater which is collected from that same building, our draw down on groundwater and our dependency on desalinated water would improve. It would be less critical. And sustainability: sustainable development is not about physical development. It is about our way of life.

And that in any decision we take, whether it is primarily economically focused, socially focused, or environmental focused, we cannot ignore the optimization of the other two pillars. So, whether I am trying to promote Malta’s competitiveness abroad, OK, then I have to look at the socio ecological. If I'm trying to improve the wellbeing, I have to look at the economic and ecological impacts. And if I'm looking at the environmental, I cannot forget the social economic dimension. I mean it takes 2 to tango, but it takes 3 to sustainability.

That is a catch phrase that I hope will catch on. Thank you so much Kevin for this intervention. It was - yes, truly inspiring and I hope that people will be able to come understand that a little goes a long way. And if one person decides to recycle their resources, let us say – now we don't want to call them waste anymore - but if people start recycling their own resources and they start inspiring other people to do the same thing, then together we might be able to create a wave that will, eventually turn into the into the tsunami of sustainability and resilience that we are aiming for. Thank you so much for your input.

And if I may add as a concluding note, if we inspire ourselves by nature, if we imitate nature, we are on the road to the correct design of our principles. Whatever they are, nature in its perfection should inspire us to do the same thing, time and time again.

Thank you, Kevin.

My pleasure.

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