10th September 2000

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Plastic cut down

Moves to reduce the use of plastics and promote
recycling are in the offing, reports Tharuka Dissanaike

Simon Peiris runs a scrap business and his main line of income was buying and selling old newspapers. But not any more. The price of used newspapers has hit rock bottom since the advent of the sili sili bag.

Simon does not want to buy old papers anymore. The market, he laments, is very dull. Shops that used to buy papers to wrap merchandise now opt for sili-sili bags, and they often give them free with purchases. Nobody wants to buy paper bags and paper-wrapped groceries have become a thing of the 'uncivilised' past. Anyway most grocery items, from sugar to dhal to bread come prepackaged in plastic. So Simon, and countless others like him, who earned a living recycling newspaper, have become a dying breed.

But perhaps things will soon change.

The government is taking commendable steps to reduce plastic and polythene garbage, after years of agitation by conservationists and others on the unsightly and wasteful use of cheap plastic materials in the country. Better late than never. The old cliche was never more apt than in this instance.

As part of a series of recommendations on how to handle plastic wastes, a state-appointed committee will suggest higher taxation on plastic industries and the introduction of substances that will help degrade plastic wastes. Higher taxes may cause manufacturers to increase prices of many of the cheap products available in today's market.

Not everyone, though, will rejoice at the consequences of reducing plastics. Will we ever get used to a world without the sili sili bag? As Tilak Hewawasam, Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority pointed out, "It (the sili sili bag) has become a part of our culture." Difficult to give up.

"It is not that people are unaware of the destruction caused by sili sili bags," Hewawasam said. "Time and again, the media and officials have highlighted that these bags are the prime cause of blocked drains, flash floods etc." But weighed against convenience and price the ill effects of sili sili bags (and plastics in general) are easily forgotten. A person may buy as many as five or six bags every day- with the morning paper and bread, with the lunch packet, with a chocolate or some bananas, with anything. Supermarkets have spread the sili sili habit by packaging items with exaggerated care in different bags.

The taxation, Hewawasam said, could increase the retail price of non-degradable polythene items by 20-25 percent. "This would be somewhat of a deterrent against heavy use of polythene products, especially bags. These products are cheap at the moment because the environmental cost is not properly reflected in the pricing. If fewer people buy them, there will be market pressure to deter manufacturers from churning out more and more polythene products."

The government plans to look more at encouraging recycling. "We are looking at incentives to large and small scale entrepreneurs to collect and recycle used plastics, especially sili sili bags."

Hewawasam said that a National Policy and Strategy on Solid Waste Disposal is now being developed. The first step would be to encourage garbage sorting, so that degradables (food and organic matter) could be used to process compost or bio-gas and paper, glass and plastics could be recycled.

"We want to reduce the amount of garbage dumped into landfills." Meanwhile awareness programmes will educate schoolchildren on the merits of recycling.

Most importantly, the CEA is testing various chemicals that could be introduced to the manufacturing process of plastics, to make the substance degradable after a while. "There are foreign companies offering expertise and technical know-how in this matter. But we have to test this out first. We have to be careful of the possible environmental side-effects of the degraded plastics as well." Meanwhile new plastic manufacturing ventures will not be allowed. The four-member committee appointed by the Ministry of Environment to make recommendations on policy decisions to reduce plastic wastes was submitting their report last week. In it, Hewawasam said, the committee has also suggested a competition among plastic recycling companies to adjudge the most innovative product line.

It is certainly heartening that the government has stepped in to curb the tidal wave of plastic products that was sweeping across the country. The committee is but a first step towards a working policy that will see the public using less plastics, more responsibly. It would be naive to assume that there would be no adverse lobbying to regulations that aim to increase taxes and prohibit new plastic industries. One can only hope that the Ministry would not be deterred in its far-sighted decision to stop plastic pollution, through political manoeuvres or pressures of big businesses.

There's money in it

Waste can bring you money," said Lloyd Fernando, Project Manager of the Seth Sevana Foundation in Moratuwa. Mr. Fernando takes this message to schools and households in Moratuwa, encouraging the public to collect garbage for handsome returns. The Foundation, working with the Ministry of Forestry and Environment, conducts educational projects to demonstrate the profits in waste collection to schoolchildren, encouraging individual schools to collect old glass and plastics for recycling. "We are also helping households to sort out garbage into different components and encouraging the habit of making compost out of kitchen waste,"he said.

Seth Sevana, the parent organisation of the Foundation could be called a pioneer in plastic recycling in Sri Lanka. The company used to manufacture woven plastic chairs out of waste materials, until cheap imported chairs threw them out of that business. Today the company has a network of collectors who supply them with industrial and domestic plastic waste, which the company turns into raw material- in the form of plastic granules.

"We buy 15-20 tons of waste plastic a month, turning it into usable raw material. Our collectors are trained to source industrial wastes. But it is really the domestic plastic use that is causing the biggest environmental damage," Fernando said.

He said that domestic plastics, even sili sili bags could be recycled, if they are collected right out of household garbage.

"Bags and plastic utensils collected from garbage dumps are not useful for recycling," Fernando said.

The Foundation would like other organisations, state departments and local councils, private sector corporates and NGOs to join with them to share the huge workload involved in weaning the public out of the plastic habit, encouraging recycling and educating the masses.

"That is essential for the continuity of the programmes we have initiated. We cannot tackle the entire problem, all over the country. We would especially welcome private sector co-operation in this project," he said.

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