By: Mattea Portelli (Our Lady Immaculate School, Hamrun)
Maltese families enjoy outdoor outings all year round on beaches and in the countryside. Unfortunately, not all people have the decency to clean up before leaving. This leads to an abundance of post-picnic littering which keeps on adding up until the place resembles a dump yard. This is a big problem for the environment. We all have the responsibility to leave our parks, beaches and countryside exactly how we find them to minimize the impact on the environment and so that others can enjoy them too.
Cleaning up a picnic area with my family
Last March my family and I went for a picnic in a popular picnic area in the north of Malta and we were appalled by the amount of litter surrounding us. We all agreed that we should go there again to clean up the place as a family accomplishment, and a few days later that is what we did. We went back there, this time prepared with protective gloves and in less than an hour we managed to collect enough post-picnic litter to fill three recycling bags which we then took home with us to be disposed of properly. It was satisfying seeing the place clean again and we shared our family initiative with others by posting on our Facebook pages and on my school Facebook page and blog, hoping that we set an example to other families, even though not littering should be the trend in this day and age, and not cleaning up.
Most of the litter that we collected consisted of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, plastic bags, disposable masks, takeaway boxes and cups, milk cartons, cigarette butts, glass bottles, paper napkins and nappies. When this kind of waste is not properly disposed of in the correct bins there is less chance of recycling. Unfortunately, this litter ends up in our water systems and in the digestive tracts of our wildlife, it smothers plants and reduces air quality due to smell and toxic chemical vapours coming from it.
How long does waste take to decompose in nature?
During the clean-up we checked the expiry date on some of the wrappers that we collected and there was litter that had already been in that picnic area for at least 5 years. If not disposed of properly, to decompose, plastic bottles can take up to 450 years or more, aluminum cans take 80-100 years, plastic bags take 10-1000 years, milk cartons take 5 years, cigarette butts take 10-12 years and nappies take 250-500 years.
We also found a number of disposable masks. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in single-use protective masks, generating more healthcare waste. Surgical masks are not made of paper, but polypropylene and if not properly discarded, they may worsen the marine litter crisis. A mask thrown away on the street, on the beach, or in the countryside will most likely make its way to the sea adding up to the millions of tons of debris floating on the surface of our seas and oceans. Over time, disposable masks will break down into microplastics that are likely to get ingested by fish and other sea animals. Ultimately, plastic masks take up to 450 years to degrade and completely disappear from the environment.
Single-Use Plastic Products Strategy for Malta 2020-2030
Malta is amongst the first countries in the European Union to ban certain single-use plastic products. The ban will apply to products such as plastic bags, cutlery, straws, plates, cotton buds, food containers and stirrers. The government will be banning all importation of single-use plastic products this year and the sale and distribution of these products will then be legally prohibited as from 2022, while items which are already on the market can only be sold until the end of this year.
Shops should keep their operations environmentally friendly
During our daily busy lives, full of appointments and errands, we tend to consume a large volume of single-use plastic items and packaging, without realizing that most of these could be easily avoided. Grocery shops and supermarkets are hubs for single-use plastic items and excessively plastic packaged items. It is important for commercial entities to take ownership of the government’s plan to reduce the consumption of plastic.
What is the situation in Malta?
Thankfully, a number of shops in Malta are already doing their part to go green and to make the transition towards more eco-friendly products and circular practices, even though there is still a long way to go. In fact, European statistics show that only a third of the plastic used in Malta is being recycled. As an island surrounded by the sea, we can no longer ignore this. If we care about our island’s environment we need to take action. We all need to do our part because the irresponsible way in which we are disposing of our plastic in Malta is having a negative impact on the marine life living in the surrounding waters.
What can we do?
Eliminating plastic completely may be difficult, but there’s still a lot that can be done. The key is avoiding single-use plastic or disposable plastics in our everyday life. For instance, instead of plastic bags we can use paper bags or reusable bags. Instead of disposable masks we can use reusable cloth face masks. After a picnic or a barbecue we should clean up and leave the place clean as the environment belongs to us all. Families and friends can organize clean-ups just like my family did. What we do on our small island will eventually have its ripple effect on our planet as a whole. We can all start making a difference and play a part in saving our environment by making small, daily, mindful choices. A lot is being done but now it’s time to work on not just reusing, but mostly on reducing waste.