It’s funny the things that can inspire a lifelong career. For Mario Schembri – the dynamic CEO behind waste management cooperative Greenpak – that thing was the infamous Maltese landfill nicknamed ‘Mount Maghtab’.
“I have been passionate about the environment for as long as I can remember,” Mario says, explaining that he was coming of age in the 90s. “Back then Maghtab – our rotting mountain of waste – was always in the news. As an engineer by profession, I got involved in the environment sector because I believed that technology and smart gadgets would be able to solve any problem we threw at them – including our ever-growing waste problem. But I was naïve of course. I have since come to understand that the problem of pollution, waste and littering is all a result of human behaviour and technology can’t solve everything.”
Nevertheless, Mario’s passion for the environment only got stronger as time went on and he chose to specialise as a professional environment consultant. He started Greenpak back when Malta was in the process of joining the European Union and the environment was a ‘big thing’. “I was very much in favour of EU membership because of the environmental policies the EU put in place, but I saw that there were business opportunities linked to it too. It led to a lot of important contracts for us – such as the closure of Maghtab, and the building of the first engineered landfill and sewage treatment plants. It was a busy time, and it was exciting to be the first private consultancy environmental firm on the island.”
Mario cites one of his key milestones as the role he played in encouraging Malta to introduce extended producer responsibility, which was launched here in 2002. The concept revolves around the idea that all producers within a production chain should be responsible for where a product ends up when it becomes waste – from the designers to the manufacturers, and beyond. “If a product isn’t designed to be recycled then it is unlikely it will be recycled,” Mario explains, quoting an experiment by Fiat in the 1980s that found that, despite all its developers’ best efforts, their Cinque Cento could not be recycled. “It was not built to be dismantled and was made of materials that are almost impossible to recycle. So, we learnt we had to look at things differently – and that’s when eco design was invented. It is a process that, from a product’s conception, looks at how it will be disposed.”
As time went on, Greenpak had many converts to its systems and, slowly, businesses realised it made more sense to dispose of their waste properly rather than pay taxes or fines. “Today over 1,400 companies are signed up to the Greenpak collective – all of them businesses that have accepted responsibility for the end-of-life of their products. As we are a not-for-profit organisation, any surplus we have at the end of the year is given back.”
Beyond that, Greenpak is responsible for providing ‘grey bag’ services to more than 70 per cent of Malta and Gozo, and is also looking at innovative ways to make recycling easier – including revolutionising bring-in site bins to make them more intelligent.
But, despite having a substantial portion of the island’s waste management responsibility on his shoulders, Mario doesn’t balk at the challenge – but instead approaches his role with a sense of calm and ongoing desire to innovate.
“To be honest, I think of myself more as a coach than a CEO,” he says. “As with most industries, this one is all about people. My approach is one that tries to bring everyone’s strengths together, because a company is only ever as good as the sum of its parts. That said, I do take my role as team leader very seriously; I listen to suggestions and am not averse to being criticised. I am passionate about making things better and always like to innovate.”
Asked about the biggest challenge he faces, Mario has one clear answer: attitude. “We hear so many excuses about why people don’t want to recycle or take responsibility for their waste, but the truth is exactly that: it’s an excuse. I still can’t believe how little we recycle when you consider that it is collected for free; it’s really not that difficult.
“So we try to educate people but it’s a slow process and there’s still a long journey ahead. Of course people know it’s wrong to throw their rubbish into the sea or out of their car window, but that still doesn’t stop them. What we really need now is more enforcement, not just from the authorities but also from Joe public. Things are getting critical and we are running out of time. As I look to 2019 it’s clear that a lot more needs to be done – especially when it comes to marine plastics for instance – and quickly.”
But even though the role is challenging and often thankless, Mario insists he is not giving up, but is instead looking to the future of both Greenpak and what he can bring to the collective. “Education is my focus,” he says. “We are visiting schools regularly, going door-to-door, and writing articles. We will take any opportunity we can to talk to people about the need to recycle – at work, at home, and beyond.
“I know it’s likely that, in a few years, we’ll still face many of the same challenges we do today – but I will still be fighting them head on. I will forever be driven by the need to tackle the challenges and help make a change,” he concludes.
MaltaChamber.org.mt is proud to be serialising MaltaCEOs 2019, a high-profile publication consisting of 50 in-depth interviews with leading CEOs in Malta. Celebrating the most influential business minds in the country, two different interviews will be featured on this business news portal week by week. MaltaCEOs was created by Content House Group in collaboration with the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise & Industry.