Brunch

Richer than most

  • The ‘garbage collector’ with a heart of gold 

Recycling and natural conservation are topics that we speak about almost on a daily basis. However, how many of us truly take the initiative to ensure that we walk our talk? Do we really live green, or are we simply following the trend? Arumugam Ravitharan is a small business owner who has built a career out of recycling solid waste. Not only does he offer many other families a source of income through employment, he is also dedicated to protecting our soil, ecosystems, and nature as a whole. 

Arumugam Ravitharan

Living amidst adversity, and facing the various derogatory allegations and name-calling from others, judged for his choice of profession, and the outer appearance of his recycling shop, Ravitharan is a man with a golden heart and a soul of titanium. Brunch spoke to Ravitharan to understand what he does and what each of us can do, to help our planet as a whole. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey.

I am self-employed in the business of recycling solid waste, and have been doing this since 2017. Even though I had the relevant experience, I had no way of successfully building a business for a long time. My team and I have worked hard to ensure that this business continues. I was born and raised in Colombo and went to school in Isipathana College. However, I was not able to continue my studies due to the many financial challenges that my family experienced.

Have you ever received any form of support from the authorities/organisations, to keep this business going?

Arumugam Ravitharan

There was an NGO that visited us one time, which explained to us that they offer social services. They evaluated all the work that we were doing, and offered us advice and guidance from time to time on recycling, as well as how we can better look after the environment. We were able to gain a lot of knowledge from them, which I treasure even now. Through this organisation, I was chosen from the Dehiwala Division on a regional level, owing to the fact that me and my team are passionate about what we do. They praised us for caring about the proper disposal of waste, rather than simply making money. We were then taken to various workshops, where we studied more about recycling. 

I do not even have my Ordinary Levels (O/Ls). An organisation called UAIT offered me assistance and got me entry into a programme in the University of Jayawardenapura, which gives me an NVQ Level 5 qualification. I am so proud that I attend university. I cannot believe that I have this education and I am proud to be in this profession. I do not want this profession to end with me. I want others to be proud to be a part of this area of work too. 

What kind of services are offered through your recycling business? 

Solid waste recycling in progress

I have observed that no matter what we buy, whether it is at a shopping mall or not, or whether we buy groceries or household items, there is a minimum 30% non-biodegradable waste that comes from it. We often dispose of these in ways that are harmful to our environment and ecosystems. However, this problem gave me a job opportunity. We collect all manner of solid waste, from types of cardboard, to food tins, perfume bottles, and other waste items, which are then cleaned thoroughly and given to organisations that will make use of them. We collect at least 10 tonnes of plastic each month just in my shop. There are about 20 other establishments like mine. 

What are the main challenges that you have experienced in this line of work?

No matter the kind of service we offer, or the importance of it, we are often dismissed as a small-scale or negligible business. If large organisations opened their doors to us, we could become direct dealers for the items that they need, which we can obtain through recycling. Often, the security guards at organisations stop us at the gates and do not allow us to meet the officials even to discuss these matters, simply because they think we are beneath them and we are just people who collect garbage. 

In addition, many people in the area are opposed to our establishment because they say that we are a health and safety hazard. They call me “Kunu Ravi” or “Kunukada Ravi” because we collect what other people throw. They believe that this business is unsuitable for a residential area, because it has no aesthetic appeal. We have had people accuse us of being a breeding ground for dengue mosquitoes or Covid-19. However, we maintain a clean premise at all times, and in reality, despite the many waves of Covid-19 we have been through, we have maintained health and safety guidelines and therefore, not been affected. 

Ravitharan and his team at work

We also have a lack of space because we do not have a proper plot of land. This stops us from collecting more waste and carrying on this recycling on a bigger scale. This is the biggest challenge that we have right now, and what we need assistance with as well. 

What kind of assistance do you need from the general public or the relevant authorities?

We pay a massive rent for this little space, along with labour charges and utility bills. If we can have a plot of land that is bigger, either through the Government or the Municipal Council, or in an industrial zone, with all the legal and lease documents, we will be able to carry on this recycling business on a larger scale. I will also be able to lay down plans to recycle waste for at least the next 10 years. I want to request the authorities, or anybody who can help us, to obtain a suitable plot of land for us, if possible in an industrial zone, with all the legal documents and deeds, so that we can continue what we do. 

What kind of solid waste can the general public bring to you for recycling?

Ravitharan and his recycling business

Everything and anything, really. We take in coconut shells, which we provide to factories to be used for charcoal. We collect cardboard and newspapers, plastics and glass, or tins and cans. Even if there is e-waste, we take apart each circuit, each piece of wire, separate the plastic and recycle it correctly, so that these do not end up in landfills. People may not be able to make a lot of money by bringing us their solid waste, but they are definitely helping keep our nature clean and safe by doing so. 

What would you like to tell the people of Sri Lanka about recycling and reducing waste? 

Always think twice before disposing of waste. Let’s cultivate the habit of recycling in our children as well. Even when parents buy toys for children, they should be aware that most of the imported plastic toys that we have are just waste matter from other countries that they send to us. Instead of buying these, if we can buy eco-friendly toys, even if the price might be slightly more, we will not only be helping our environment, but also uplifting small scale entrepreneurs and artisans around the country. Please reduce the use of plastics as much as you can. I want to ask everyone to bring me their solid waste. I may not be able to give people a lot of money in exchange, but I will take the responsibility of ensuring that these waste items will not end up in landfills and destroy our ecosystems. 

Do you have any solid waste that can be recycled? You can contact Arumugam Ravitharan on: 

Address: Vishnu Recycle Agent (there is no name board)

162, Alan Avenue, Karagampitiya, Dehiwala

Phone: 0713117043