Beverage container refunds - Joe Attard

Beverage container refunds - Joe Attard

February 7 should be another day jotted down in environmental history for the business community, a pro-business government led by its guarantor, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Malta is committed to collect most of the plastic PET bottles placed on the market.

In saying this, the business community hopes that the signature on the dotted line is not left empty because of two pending issues, final exemption certificates from eco contribution and excise duties on the same beverage products that will now be deemed part of the Beverage Container Refund System.

In April 2008, the government entered into a tri-party agreement between the Local Councils Department, the GRTU representing waste carriers and the Local Councils Association to operate the newly set up Recycle Tuesdays initiative to collect recyclables from Malta every Tuesday and Gozo, then every Monday. 

The government then was setting the scenario for the producer responsibility scenario.

In late 2008, discussions started between beverage producers (13 companies) led by the GRTU, the Malta Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises. These 13 companies were at the time paying a hefty sum in eco contribution every three months to public coffers for their environmental obligation.

It was not an easy scenario to handle but after months of discussions a pilot proposal was accepted by the government, which laid out the basis of this new scenario. 

The GRTU set up a Packaging Waste Compliance Scheme, GreenMT and the scheme totally owned by GRTU represented these 13 producers and agreed with the government to collect the grey bag from 27 local councils between July 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009. 

The government agreed that if the pilot project were successful, it would then be spread to all local councils by March 2010.

In the first six months only 13 producers were part of this pilot project. From its end, the government had agreed to exempt these companies from the payment of Eco Contribution if the scheme reached a collection target of 70 per cent of what these producers placed on the market. 

In addition, 60 per cent of this had to be collected from the local councils through the collection of the grey bag and also through the emptying of bring-in sites.

It is well to note that EU packaging regulations then specified that producers had to meet a collection target of only 45 per cent. The business community held firm to its commitment even though an early scare showed these 13 companies receiving judicial letters to pay Eco Contribution. 

Changing goal posts or not being clear and transparent on these issues is never a correct way forward

Through ups and downs, over 1,500 joined schemes by May 2011, after a Mepa crackdown on liable producers. Today over 2,600 are members of the Packaging Compliance Schemes.

It is to be noted that 400 of these producers had a liability to Eco Contribution, which they were exempted from paying because they were members to either GreenMT or GreenPak.  

Under LN 84 of 2010, the schemes representing each producer applied for provisional exemption of eco contribution for each calendar year. The legislation stated that final exemption certificates would be issued to each producer after an audit was made to each scheme, which audit would verify or otherwise that the target of 70 per cent and 60 per cent were collected by the schemes.

The results of these first six years, 2009 to 2014, as interpreted by the auditors and also by the Approving Body Eco Contribution, show that the 70 per cent and the 60 per cent were not reached. 

This means that the same 400 producers who hold provisional exemption certificates from eco contribution are still as such liable to a part payment of eco contribution running into probably millions of euros.

The Eco Contribution Approving Body, after due advice, has now stated that carton and paper collected from household separated waste and bring-in sites are not to be accredited to schemes on behalf of the producers.

Great, so years down the line this responsible body decides to move goal posts. Can anyone one in the business community or elsewhere tell me why should the schemes on behalf of all these producers collect paper and board and carton through the grey bag and the bring-in sites if they were not going to be accredited for their compliance targets?

Can anyone in his right sense of mind convince me why 400 producers would collect such material if it was not going to be accredited for compliance?

Moving on, the government in the meantime also introduced excise duties on water, beverages and a number of other products placed on the market which had a liability to eco contribution and also to the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations.

 So producers were exempt from paying eco contribution (so they thought) through being a scheme member, but now also forked money to the public coffers for excise on these products. A consistent call to remove these discriminatory duties by the business community through both the Malta Chamber of Commerce and the GRTU has fallen on deaf ears too.

The business community rests its case. This is all about trust, and changing goal posts or not being clear and transparent on these issues is never a correct way forward. Constituted bodies believe in a pro-business scenario. Businesses are delivering a success story. The economy is booming. It is all built on trust.

And today, just a few days away from a major milestone, the business community should not be treated like a beggar in waiting. Either these two issues are solved before the signature on the dotted line or else no deal. 

This is an issue of trust and if the government has failed in its commitment already twice, once by moving goal posts on Final Exemption Certificates from Eco Contribution and secondly by introducing excise duties, then the business community should be guards up front. No signed agreement on these two issues, no deal on the Beverage Container Refund System. 

No promises, no blanket statements, just deals, and deals come in the form of black and white. 

The agreements to be entered into by the business community over the Beverage Container Refund System set up by the business community are totally rigorous and in black and white, as they should be.  

The government should stand up and deliver likewise. The business community needs peace of mind, at the least.

Joe Attard is CEO of Green mt.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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