Tuesday 23 July 2024

A one-man civic education campaign

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I have been following Arnold Cassola’s posts for a long time; he has always been relentless in his watchdog approach to calling out what is wrong with the country, whether it is political scandals and corrupt practices, to more mundane topics. This has earned him a few choice phrases by some members of the public who accuse him of “always moaning and whining”.

Lately, however, I have noticed a shift in public perception of this one-man campaign to set things right. Whereas when it comes to politics there is a general air of hopeless defeatism, when it comes to the deterioration of their own neighbourhoods, that is when everyone becomes very vocal and angry. For a while, it even lifts their blinkers and they have no choice but to call a spade a spade.

What has really caught my attention is that, recently, every time someone sends Arnold Cassola photos of negligence, general hazards, dumping and litter which he shares on his profile, the mess is quickly cleaned up and the issue is taken care of. Which means that someone is monitoring his profile, talking note of his social media traffic and is not dismissing him as easily as they did in the past. He then posts more photos with the quip “this is before and after Cassola’s whining”. This tongue-in-cheek approach is working: it has made others sit up and take notice, causing a ripple effect as more people send him photos of everything from broken pavements to rat infestations to ….you name it. After all there is no shortage of issues which need to be tackled in this country, which over the last few months is looking even dirtier and shabbier than usual. I don’t know whether it is because it is summer and we are out and about more so we see things with our own eyes, or because of all the photos on social media, but it feels like we are living in a perpetual pigsty.

The general consensus is the same: the sector responsible for keeping the country clean has failed big time. Faced by a section of the population which pollutes everywhere it goes and transient residents who do not know when the correct days for rubbish collection are (or don’t care to adhere to them), it is clear that not enough is being done to tackle the waste problem head-on.

The mounds of rubbish are starting to resemble the way Naples looked during its waste management crisis in 2008, and in the following years due to strikes, when the stench from uncollected waste became unbearable and posed a serious threat to public health. As recently as 2020, an article about Naples’ trash problem outlines many of the contributing factors, all of which sound very, very familiar:

“The environmental mess taking place here goes well beyond illegal trash fires. Criminal groups associated with Naples’ version of the Mafia — the camorra — ran lucrative operations in which they illegally buried toxic industrial waste.
Add to that a more general crisis of dealing with waste from the millions of people who live in and around Naples, Italy’s second most populous city. Add to that truckloads of trash illegally discarded by unscrupulous and black market businesses wanting to avoid landfill fees and detection by tax authorities.
The result: Trash festers on the sides of roads, along country lanes, in fields and abandoned buildings.
Government is complicit. Across this region, local authorities designated spots as temporary trash depots, but the trash is still there, rotting in place years later. Add to this poorly managed urban sprawl and another common problem in Italy: illegal construction, known as abusivismo, a word denoting abusive behavior. The result: More waste.”
(Source: www.courthousenews.com)

The most recent article I found dated July of this year, confirms that in Naples, bins overflowing with trash and streets with rubbish piled up against the wall or in the middle of the square are still a common sight. I have singled out Naples because it is notorious for this reason, but I challenge anyone to argue that Malta, right now, is any different. It is not in order to say, “u iva, you see? this happens everywhere,” but to bow down our heads in shame that it is happening here, a tiny country which should be able to grapple with its waste without all this angst.

Let us start with the obvious: waste management has to be practical and feasible for the exigencies of a country. If the new system of different coloured bags collected only on specific days is not working in certain areas because they are tourist resorts or because they have a higher percentage of rental apartments which generate more waste – then change the system. The switch to a nationwide system where the black bag, for example, is collected only on Tuesdays and Saturdays everywhere has worked in residential areas where people have lived in the same street for many years and there is a certain amount of community pride. It is clearly and most definitely not working where there is a me ne frego approach.

And before people start spouting off about “all these foreigners”…how many of you are quite happy to rent out an apartment on airbnb? These short lets are part of the problem and it should be part of the condominium agreement that the owner is responsible for tenants to take out their rubbish properly. If the tenants do not comply, the owner should be fined.

In fact I would even go so far as to say that certain apartment blocks should forbid airbnb. Imagine you spend tonnes of money for an upscale apartment in a good location, and then you end up with strangers coming in and out every few weeks who don’t care about obeying the rules because they don’t live there. This was brought to mind during a recent episode of the TV show And Just Like That…as fictitious as it might be, it is based on what actually happens in real life, when the apartment management found out that Carrie and Aidan were airbnb-ing an apartment. The owner was given a warning and they were told to leave, no questions asked.

We can only dream about such a serious approach to enforcement of the rules and I can already hear all the excuses and justifications by those who want to do what they like, even if it is to the detriment of their long-suffering neighbours. Needless to say, even certain long lets can be problematic; having ten unrelated people living in one apartment should be a non-starter; this is actually stipulated in the Development Planning law covering residential uses, from which I quote verbatim:

Class 1 Dwellings

Use as a residence, whether or not as a sole or main residence, by any of the following:
(a) a single person or by people living together as a family;
(b) not more than six residents living together, including a household where care is provided for residents

I think people who are fully aware that the above is being breached should stop merely complaining on Facebook, and start filing reports that the law is being broken. Such landlords need to be held accountable and be culpable for their actions. If enough people do it, we might even get somewhere.

Another thing which should become mandatory where blocks of apartment have gone up are wheelie bins in a designated common area for the different bags which are then taken out on the right day. Whenever I suggest this there are the usual objections and buts – but who will take them in/out, but who will keep them clean and so on and so forth. This is the problem with Malta – there are a myriad of solutions but there will always be those who oppose them on grounds that they are unfeasible (and yet, wonder of wonders, they work perfectly well in so many countries). Isn’t it obvious that our traditional method of leaving our rubbish out on the pavement is archaic and no longer suits our needs? Do we really prefer to step over mounds of mixed rubbish and organic bags which have been split wide open with rats cheerfully feasting on the contents in broad daylight?

Meanwhile, political activists such as Arnold Cassola (who is now not affiliated with any party) are using their clout to draw attention to the failures of the authorities and is rapidly gaining the support of the ordinary citizen. Whereas before he was jeered, he is now being cheered on, and that is an indication of how thoroughly fed up everyone is of seeing the squalor and the neglect, while those in charge seem to be twiddling their thumbs, only reacting when they see a Facebook post. To quote Cassola’s slogan, “we deserve better”.

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