Given the recent calamity at Meethotamulla and the ill-advised decision to dump garbage in Muthurajawela, a wetland sanctuary under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance, it is useful to consider the background to waste management in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka generates 7000MT of solid waste per day with the Western Province accounting for nearly 60% of waste generation. Each person generates an average of 1-0.4kg of waste per day. According to the Waste Management Authority and the Central Environmental Authority, only half of the waste generated is collected.
Responsibility of waste management
Waste collection and disposal responsibilities are vested with the local authorities of the particular Divisional Secretariat, either a municipal council (as per the Municipal Councils Ordinance -1947), urban council (Urban Councils Ordinance – 1939) or local council (Pradeshiya Sabha Act – 1987). Provisions related to waste management and disposal, are made under the National Environmental Act No.47 of 1981 and Public Nuisance Ordinance.
There are a myriad of institutions concerned with waste management at different stages, including the Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils, Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, Ministry of Megapolis and Western Province Development, Central Environmental Authority, Urban Development Authority, National Solid Waste Management Support Centre, Western Province Waste Management Authority, Local Authorities.
For the last 20 years or so, government institutions have attempted to figure out the best waste management strategy for the country. While some policies and actions supported sanitary landfills, some initiatives were driven towards waste to energy projects. In 2008, CEA initiated a 10 year Waste Management Programme named “Pilisaru Programme” with the goal of “Waste Free Sri Lanka by 2018”. Unfortunately the lack of a unified coherent strategy has led to inconsistent and ineffective practices.
The failure to address this escalating issue in a timely manner resulted in unsanitary eye sores in Karadiyana, Bluemendhal, Meethotamulla, Kolonnawa, and the degradation of wetlands, coastline, rivers and other streams which become dumping sites for plastic and polythene waste, and other mixed waste. With mountains of garbage accumulating at Bluemendhal and Meethotamulla, on the 14th of April, Sinhala-Hindu New Year dawned with the burst of Meethotamulla garbage mountain, killing 30 people and destroying more than 100 houses.
Instead of playing a blame-game, it is important to identify the key flaws in our system and rectify them. From individual households to high ranking government officials, we are all accountable and somewhat responsible for this current state of affairs, whether by generating unmanageable piles of waste or refusing to adopt sound management measures. In the past, we have been hindered by an absence of genuine political will, a lack of accountable authorities and apathetic and disinterested citizens. We cannot continue like this.
As individuals we need to be responsible for our own waste, starting from minimizing waste generation to ensuring responsible waste disposal. While reducing the plastic and polythene use, it is our responsibility to separate the waste as perishables and non-perishables (un compostables) and handover non-perishables (plastic/polythene, glass, metal etc) to recycling centres.
In parallel, waste collection by local authorities should have to be regularised and facilitatecollection of segregated waste, otherwise separation at the point of generation will be a futile exercise. While people could hand over the recyclable waste to either collection centres or recycling centres directly, whatever that will not be processed in that way should be collected and disposed as separated waste with sound management mechanisms. The local councils should facilitate this process.
Government authorities should prioritize perishable waste conversion to compost and bio gas in partnership with the corporate sector. Business opportunities should be created based on the technology and financial feasibility, not based on the nepotism or gaining political benefits. Plastic, polythene, metal and glass recycling enterprises should be promoted and supported at different scales, and the gap between waste generators and recyclers should be filled by establishing more collection centers and making the process more accessible to the general public. Waste is a resource and profitable ventures should be created in the waste business and it should be developed as a service that generates profit rather a business with no service value.
Authorities need to utilize scientific experts to identify the best model to manage waste in Sri Lanka, be it Waste-to-Energy, incineration or a combination of both. Landfills will have to be still considered since there will be a disposable waste quantity generated even after incineration and from other waste to energy operations. In case of failure of such waste to energy operations temporary, the landfill will have to be kept as an alternative.We as civil society have a responsibility to educate people to move towards more sustainable and resource efficient consumption patterns. EFL plans to continue our campaign of awareness raising, while urging government authorities to streamline waste management.