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Monday, 16 July 2012






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Issues related to solid waste management in Sri Lanka

‘Waste’ as we all know, is what we have no use for – maybe we have used it and it is not suitable for further use, or the useful material came with some useless material that has to be discarded, or perhaps we have an excess supply that we cannot use, or return to the supplier, and therefore has to be thrown away. Anyway, we throw them away because we feel that we have no further use for them.

There are many reasons for the enormous increase in
waste quantities

Many things have changed in the world within the last 50 years or so. In the 60’s and 70’s, USA was called ‘the throwaway society’, while our lifestyles were much more sustainable. We wore cotton clothes (which were biodegradable), and our eating habits were such that food was hardly wasted, and always there were domestic cats and dogs that were fed on table scrap – unlike the pets of today that have to be fed special foods from cans. There were no plastic shopping bags or lunch sheets – there were brown paper bags that could carry a decent weight, and carrying a bag when you go marketing was the ‘done thing.’ Food was wrapped in plantain leaves or carried in reusable containers or between two plates, (often metal). ‘Take away’ food was a rarity. You had to go and eat at a restaurant or hotel, where cutlery, crockery and all other utensils were reusable. There were no fancy names like ‘3-R principle’, but ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ were the ‘common sense’.

Bottles were almost entirely glass, and was never thrown away because the ‘Bottle-paper man’ was a regular visitor, and aerated water and liquor bottles were not sold without an empty bottle or a thumping deposit – which itself was a deterrent.

Newspapers went for wrapping all kinds of goods at the grocer’s and used exercise books were destined to go to the gram sellers for the ‘kadala gottas’. Metals like cast iron and aluminium were collected from door to door for recycling, coconut shells were used as firewood or for ironing, and even coconut residue either had uses like for floor cleaning or could be sold after sun drying, as a raw material for oil production. Almost everyone had a small plot of land, where you could have a small pit for the garden waste and any other stuff that needed to be thrown away and since most of it was biodegradable, the pit seemed to last forever.

The average composition of waste in the municipal areas

As far as I know, the solid waste collection and disposal was only happening in the few Municipal Councils, and the simple lifestyle of the majority of the people resulted in quite manageable quantities to be collected, and incineration was practiced - perhaps not the best choice of technology even those days when oil prices were not high – but we did not see heaps of garbage lying around. So basically, we were living by the 3-R principle, without calling it that. A fine example of this is found in the Buddhist teachings, ‘Vinaya Pitaka’, where I understand that the Buddhist priests have been advised to reuse the good parts of the robes as undergarments when they were too old to be worn as outer wear, and then used as bed linen, and then as towels or napkins, door mats and finally when it is no longer useable as a cloth, to mix it with clay and use as a filler material for the walls.


Unfortunately, that era is now gone, and we in Sri Lanka have got caught up in the Winds of Change, and have become a ‘throwaway society’ in a big way.Our opportunities for reuse are masked by the availability of so many consumer items,so that the temptation is to purchase something new rather than reuse an old thing as a substitute. Mostly due to lack of storage space, we prefer to throw away things regardless of the possibility of reuse, and purchase again when we need it next time.

This is apparent when we look at the solid waste generation statistics in the recent past.This table from the JICA Report of 2007, shows the amounts of solid waste collected by the local authorities in the 9 Provinces of Sri Lanka. This shows that 1663 tons of waste is collected (nearly 60% of the total waste) per day in the Western Province, and out of that 1257 tons per day (44% of the total) is generated in the Colombo District.

Waste management

So we can see that our first issue is the sheer quantity of waste generated, that needs to be managed. There are many reasons for this enormous increase in

Plastic soda bottle lamp

waste quantities, such as the population increase, urbanization and migration of population from the rural to the urban areas leading to much higher population densities , changes in lifestyle, and economic activities etc. A study carried out by Bandara et al (2007) in Sri Lanka has shown that the per capita waste generation rate is directly related to the social status of the people.

The second issue is the change in characteristics of the waste generated.Changes in lifestyle, introduction of cheap plastic and polythene items such as disposable tableware, takeaway foods in polystyrene packing and polythene lunch sheets, household electronic items and computers, higher level of sophistication in clothing and households leading to use of more chemical cleaners and laundry products in plastic cans, aerosols etc., replacement of glass bottles with plastic containers thatare not reusable, etc., have resulted in a change in composition of the waste, with approximately 10% of the weight being now contributed by plastics.

The average composition of waste in the municipal areas is shown in the pie chart. There are slight variations in the composition among the Municipal Councils and the hierarchy of local authorities, the percentage of short term biodegradables increasing and the long term biodegradables reducing as the level of the local Authority increases for the Pradeshiya Sabhas, through Urban Councils to Municipal Councils.However, in all local authorities, the major portion of waste (40% – 66%) is short term biodegradable, as seen in the Figures below.

Even though the composition of waste shows that the major portion of waste is short term biodegradables, giving a weight ratio of about 8 times that of plastics and polythene, with the lower density of polythene compared to the biodegradables (A study done by Ontario Waste Diversion Organization (2001) showed that the density ratio is about 1: 30), reverses the volume ratios to nearly 4 times plastics and polythenes to that of biodegradables. In addition, the lower density makes the loose plastics rise to the top when dumped, and since often the other garbage is covered with plastic bags, we see it at the surface.

PET bottles being used as lampshades

Our next set of issues comes from what happens to the waste if we just allow it to remain in the environment. Unfortunately, this is what we seem to have been doing in the past, except for a few sporadic attempts at treatment by composting and incineration. Garbage dumped by the roadside, water bodies and in low-lying areas became a common sight.So what are the issues related to this poor management of solid waste?

* Obviously, it degrades the aesthetic value of the environment, and along with it socio-economic issues such as lowering of land values, increase in informal

sector employment like rag-picking and scavenging and related activities

* Health issues due to the breeding of stray cats, dogs, rats and other vermin,mosquitoes

* Effects on wild animals that are attracted to these waste dumps, like deer,bandicoots, and even elephants, which may cause death (due to suffocation or consumption of plastics and toxic substances) as well as whose feeding habits change causing changes to their immune systems and other vital processes that may even lead to irreversible changes.

* Air pollution due to the anaerobic degradation of the biodegradable portion resulting in emission of air pollutants like methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and other offensive gases

* Surface and ground water pollution from the leachate that seeps through the ground or is washed off with the surface runoff during wet weather.

* Increase in Global Warming potential due to the emission of green house gases such as CO2, CH4 and nitrous oxide. The contribution to the greenhouse gas budget of Sri Lanka associated with the methane released into the atmosphere from MSW open dumps has been found to be significant (Ramya Kumari & Bandara, 2004).

So why have we allowed our environment to be so degraded by solid waste, and let the solid waste management issues reach such huge proportions? Is it ignorance of the consequences? I don’t think so. Perhaps some of the consequences like contribution to global warming

and ground and surface water pollution due to leachate may not be obvious, and needed research and access to information beyond the common man’s reach, but the aesthetic effects are so obvious that any person should be able to see the effects.


There are high tech solutions, but there are many low tech solutions too, particularly to manage at the source, so that only the portion that we really cannot handle at source is collected for disposal.

Policies, laws and standards

The legal framework for solid waste management is quite well established in the country. According to the Local Government Act, the Local Authorities in Sri Lanka are responsible for collecting and disposal of waste generated by the people within their territories. The necessary provisions are given under the sections 129, 130 and 131 of the Municipal Council Ordinance; the sections 118, 119 and 120 of the Urban Council Ordinance; and sections 93 and 94 of the Pradeshiya Sabha Act. Provincial Councils have been given the powers to manage solid waste, as a devolved subject under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

National Environmental Act

The National Environmental Act (NEA) of 1980 which was subsequently amended in 1988 provides the necessary legislative framework for environmental protection in the country. The Ministry of Environment prepared the National Strategy for Solid Waste Management in 2000, which recognized the need for SWM from generation to final disposal through a range of strategies, based on the 3-R principal, as well as the need for decentralized actions as well as centralized actions such as developing the market conditions for sale of recyclable materials and products made from recycled materials.

This was superseded by a National Policy for Solid Waste Management prepared in 2007 “to ensure integrated, economically feasible and environmentally sound solid waste management practices for the country at national, provincial and Local Authority level”. A major activity that sprung from the National Policy is the setting up of the Pilisaru Programme in 2008, to solve the solid waste problem at the national level, with

the help of the “Pilisaru Project” at the Central Environmental Authority, with the concept of reusing the resources available in the collected garbage to the maximum before final disposal. While technical and financial assistance on SWM to the local authorities is a major role of Pilisaru, it is also empowered to take legal action against those local Authorities that are not managing their solid waste properly.

In addition, a general guideline for the implementation of SWM was prepared by the Central Environmental Authority in 2005, which is available in the CEA website. The Central Environmental Authority has stipulated regulations giving standards and criteria for generation, collection, transport, storage, recovery, recycling, disposal or establishment of any site or facility for the disposal of any waste specified as ‘Scheduled Waste’, and such activities need an EPL for operation. (Government Gazette Extraordinary No. 1534/18 - FEBRUARY 01, 2008). A specification for Compost from Municipal Solid Waste Management and Agricultural Waste was stipulated by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution as Sri Lanka Standard 1246: 2003 (UDC 628.477.4).

Thus we can see that lack of policies or legal provisions cannot be cited as a major barrier for a clean and healthy environment free from garbage dumps. Lack of funding is a factor, because the legal responsibility of solid waste management is with the local Authorities and the Provincial Councils, which are not profit making organizations. Most of the local Authorities pay more attention to the improvement of physical infrastructure coming within their purview, and their concern toward SWM issue is low and the amount of resources utilized for SWM is relatively low. However, within the last few years, several funding agencies have provided financial assistance to the Ministries of Environment, Local Government and Provincial Councils, for Solid Waste Management


However, I think the main reason behind the poor state of affairs with regard to our Solid Waste Management is our attitude. We are so used to not taking responsibility for the waste that we produce, that it is very easy to blame the Local Authorities for not doing their job, and absolve ourselves from the blame. If we stop for a moment to think ‘who is actually responsible, any reasonable person would realize that we, who produce the waste, should be held responsible for safe disposal of it too. True enough, we are paying taxes and the local authorities are expected to provide services, but when it comes to resource wastage, how much can money compensate? All these heaps and mountains of garbage contain so much of resources that should not have gone there in the first place. This is what we should be thinking about. Not throwing good stuff away and then trying to recover some resources from it, but not throwing it away at all.

How can we change this?

Ideally, if we could go back to the lifestyle that we had 50 years ago, we would be undoubtedly much better as far as sustainability goes. However, that is unlikely to happen; but we can still keep our hopes for a better future, because the younger generation seem to be more conscious about the diminishing resources than ours. If we can even at this late stage provide them with the right kind of platform, we may be able to redeem our losses, at least to a certain extent.

Most of us are familiar with the hierarchy of actions in Solid Waste Management.

Avoid – Do you really need it?

Reduce – How much is enough?

Reuse – Can it be used for another purpose?

Recover – At least some parts, metals, chemicals

Recycle – Don’t waste your waste – convert to usable products or energy

Dispose safely

How can we practise these principles? We need to inculcate them in our society. Make them our lifestyle. We have to be innovative, and think outside the box. We Sri Lankans are quite good at improvisation and innovations. We can see that things are moving in the right direction, with the support of the Ministries of Environment and Local Government, CEA, Pilisaru Programme and the Provincial Councils. Here are two examples of what we can do with a 2 litre PET Bottle:

Example 1: A small hotel in Arugambay was reusing the PET Bottles as lampshades in their garden.

Example 2: Plastic Soda Bottle Lamp - An improvisation to light up dark spaces using the sunlight during the daytime. The bottle is filled with clean water, and about 3 tablespoons of liquid bleach is added to prevent algae growth. The bottle is tightly capped, and secured on the roof, with a part of the bottle above the roof and the rest below the roofing sheet.

The sunlight enters through the upper part of the bottle, gets refracted within it, and is emitted from the lower part, diffusing light into the dark interior of the room. This simple device is bringing happiness to so may people living in dark, crowded shanties in the developing world.

This is an example that we should definitely follow, as it has multiple advantages of bringing light to dark spaces, particularly in single storey houses,

warehouses, garages etc. utilizing sunlight, at very little initial cost and no operating cost at all and reuses plastic that would have needed disposal or recycling. If this idea can be propagated in the country, it is certainly going to help reduce the cost of electricity or kerosene used to light up homes, and would improve the living condition of some of the underserved homes.

Thus we can see that the main issues of Solid Waste in Sri Lanka are the very high quantities that are generated and the characteristics of the waste, and the issues arising from what happens to the waste if we just allow it to remain in the environment, such as aesthetic effects, health issues, effects on wild animals, air, water and soil pollution and increase in Global Warming potential.

Our country has adequate legislation, regulations and organizational structure, but the main cause of the poor state of affairs seems to be the failure of the public to take responsibility for the waste that they generate, and not concentrating our efforts on the prevention of waste generation and looking for alternative uses rather than throwing these resources away.

However, there is hope for a better future because the younger generation is much more sensitive to the environmental impacts of this unsustainable behaviour, but we need to provide them the necessary support. We can see that things are moving in the right direction, with the support of the Ministries of Environment and Local Government, CEA, Pilisaru Programme and the Provincial Councils, and some private sector participation too.

(The writer is a Senior Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Moratuwa)


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