Sunday 04 December 2022

Creating a culture change is only as difficult as we want it to be

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

You would think that the organic waste bins and biodegradable bags which were being given out for free were a lifeline separating us from impending doom and the chance of salvation during an apocalypse. 

For several weeks now that seems to have been the uppermost thought in people’s minds – not the waste separation itself, mind you, but the fact that they were entitled to these freebies.  And damn it, they were going to get them, come hell or high water, because that is what they had been promised.  

Of course, this is not to excuse the failure of Wasteserv (who then passed the buck on to the local councils) to distribute the bins and bags nation-wide as promised – something, somewhere went very wrong, many were left empty-handed and it was not a promising start to the campaign.  

After all, it is difficult enough as it is to get people to embrace change when they absolutely, resolutely refuse to change, without a major fail such as this.  So strike one does have to go against Wasteserv for the inability to deliver the goods as promised.  I had to go to a collection point in Mosta to collect my bin, which should not have really happened, but on the plus side it was well-organized and efficient and things moved along at a quick pace. However, I understand that in other towns and villages they ran out of bins and the queues were ridiculously long with the inevitable finger-pointing as to who should be blamed.

But where it really started verging on the ridiculous was when people lost all sense of proportion and could only focus on these blessed bins.  It was at this point that I could not contain myself any more and had to point out to those having a virtual meltdown that erm, you do not actually need the bins to separate organic waste, and just because you did not get your consignment of (free) bags, it was no big deal. I had already bought some from a supermarket, just in case.  It seems to me that it is always this concept of getting something for free which makes people go a little bit berserk.  They fail to see or think about anything else – the free item or service becomes the Holy Grail and not getting it when everyone else seems to have got it, is like a trigger which spirals them into cuckoo land. I actually saw comments to the effect that, “if I do not get my free bin and bags, there is no way I am going to separate waste” with much gnashing of teeth and shaking of fists against the incompetence and hopelessness of the authorities.  Indeed, the most common question at the collection points was, “what happens when the roll of (free) bags finishes?” The reply, that they would have to buy more themselves from then on, was met by a rather crestfallen look.

It is at times like this I think that maybe it is not such a good idea for so many things to be provided for free. For while I will always believe in social justice, a fair society and giving a hand to those in need, the doling out of free goodies does tend to breed a sort of arrogance and lack of appreciation in the public which starts to demand more and more things for free, because that is what they have become accustomed to.  The sense of absolute entitlement is very real.   

After all the hullabaloo over the bins came the fateful day: Wednesday 31 October. If you did not know that was the day when the organic waste was going to start being collected, and that only the biodegradable bags should be taken out, then you must have been living under a rock for the last month or so.  The advert, with what came to be a rather annoying catchphrase, ‘sort it out’ was playing incessantly on the radio.  I even saw the Wasteserv promotional campaign on the back of a bus. But what really did my head in is that people who are constantly, but constantly on FB, claimed not to know that the new system was starting on Wednesday when the sponsored ads on social media were popping up every minute.  It also makes me wonder how people can spend a whole afternoon demanding information from others on FB, when they could do a simple search on the Wasteserv page or website, and specifically their own local council FB page.   Do people not know how to seek out basic information?  It is not rocket science, honestly. 

On the other hand, for such a major rollout on a national scale, Wasteserv and/or the local councils should have also used snail mail or door-to-door distribution to send the leaflets with the information to each home.   This is especially important for those who are non-Maltese nationals who have not been here long and for rental apartments. For the latter, I think landlords also have an obligation to ensure that their tenants are made aware of the various rubbish collection days/times and not simply wash their hands of the rubbish problem which occurs in many apartment blocks which house a large number of rental apartments.  It is only courteous to homeowners in the neighbourhood to ensure that everyone is following the rules. 

Some of the most common complaints about the new system are understandable, namely that the collection schedule for the various bags has changed from the way it was before and that each local council has different days and times for the various bags, so it can be confusing.  Human beings are creatures of habit and it is not easy to adjust and become accustomed to a new schedule. But, if the spirit is willing, it will only be as difficult as we make it out to be. Stick the schedule to your fridge door and check it every day, or the night before.  For apartment blocks, the best idea is to stick the poster in the common areas near the entrance – it has to be a community effort otherwise we will see mounds of different coloured bags piling up with no one wanting to take responsibility for getting it wrong.   

In fact, this is another grey area; it is all very well to stick a red sticker on bags which have been taken out wrongly, but when they are all piled up at one end of the street, how are they going to know who should be fined, when the fines start being applied? I know that in some countries they actually dig through the trash to locate an address on a discarded envelope, but what if none is found?  This is one of the several questions Wasteserv needs to answer.  

It has also been pointed out that there are rubbish trucks which are simply throwing all the different bags in together, so what is the point of recycling and separating waste?  If people are not given clear answers and are not convinced that waste separation is actually being followed through from A – Z, then they will give up and not bother. 

Which brings us to the sorting itself. Again, if someone has never recycled this will take a while to get used to.  Sure, it is easier to just dump everything into the black bag and say who cares?  But ultimately if you do sort waste into different bags and recycle, you are not doing it for this Government or any Government, but for yourself and your children because we just cannot keep generating so much waste, and disposing of everything in one lump, when our landfills are full.  It would also be nice to be able to pass through the streets and not see mounds of rubbish bags, taken out on the wrong day, waiting forlornly in the rain like we saw this last week.

It will take getting used to, it won’t happy overnight, and things which went wrong need to be improved. But a culture change is possible and necessary, unless we want to be wading through our own filth every time we step out the door.


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