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Let waste not be a wasted opportunity 

Even in Colombo, also known as the commercial capital or the most developed city in the country, we rarely see garbage bins in public places, despite the well-known fact that Colombo is a city that generates a large amount of garbage compared to other cities.

According to Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL), Sri Lanka generates around 7,000 metric tonnes (MTs) of solid waste per day, and while the Western Province accounts for close to 60% of waste generation, each person generates an average of one to four kilogrammes of waste per day. EFL claims that according to the Western Provincial Waste Management Authority (WPWMA) and the Central Environmental Authority, only half of this waste is collected. Recently, Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera revealed that Sri Lanka wastes a staggering amount of approximately 5,000 MTs of food per day, emphasising the need to take measures to prevent and lessen this waste. 

These statistics may be a reason to loathe the existing garbage management system, the authorities, or the public that disposes of garbage with no regard to the environment. However, the bigger question we should ask is, how long can Sri Lanka go without a proper garbage management and recycling system, in a context where the population keeps rising compared to limited land resources?

For a small country like Sri Lanka, these statistics are actually a warning.

Identifying the gravity of the unmanaged garbage issue, and also the bigger disasters it can lead to if left unaddressed, Sri Lanka’s neighbour India has announced promising plans to deal with rising garbage dumps. Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to replace mountains of garbage with waste treatment plants. He made this statement in a context where India is also facing garbage-related issues, similar to those faced by Sri Lanka but on a much larger scale.

The rubbish mountain in Deonar, Mumbai, India – which is dubbed India’s largest and oldest garbage mountain with garbage piles as high as 120 feet – caught fire in 2016, and the fire lasted for months. Sri Lanka also has a similar experience. In February last year, a fire erupted at the Muthurajawela-Kerawalapitiya garbage dump, and in 2018, a part of the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapsed and caught fire, killing and displacing scores who resided in the surrounding area.

In a new development, the Urban Development Authority (UDA) has announced that discussions are underway to develop the Meethotamulla Urban Park in a bid to convert the Meethotamulla garbage dump into a park.

It is not like Sri Lanka never thought about or discussed the necessity of a proper garbage management and recycling mechanism. On multiple occasions during the past few years, the Governments that came to power initiated such projects. However, due to various reasons, some of them did not bear fruit while some are still operating, but not at a level that can help change Sri Lanka’s situation significantly. There were also occasions when the authorities saw that simply moving a garbage dump to a different location would solve the problem. However, the WPWMA is continuing some admirable activities, including providing facilities for new initiatives aiming to collect and recycle garbage, including electronic and plastic waste, which is a need of the hour.

The fact of the matter is, garbage-related matters are not merely environmental issues; they affect both the health and the economy. Therefore, the responsibility of addressing the issue of rising unmanaged and unprocessed garbage mountains should not be entrusted only to the environmental authorities, but also to other relevant State institutions that should fulfill their share of responsibilities. Also, when it comes to the management of garbage, that task also requires a multi stakeholder, multi-faceted approach, simply because the process which leads to the formation of garbage mountains involves many parties, including the public. 

In this context, there is a need for national level, effective awareness-raising activities as well, because the proper management of garbage disposed of at the household-level plays an extremely important role in this process. It can start with steps as simple as providing more garbage bins for public places, and understanding the fact that garbage, if processed properly, can be a source of income, not a problem.