Garbage and sharing of responsibilities
If you ask most citizens of Colombo what the city’s biggest problem is, it wouldn’t take many even a moment to shoot back: “Garbage”. Such is the magnitude of this problem.
Garbage collection is the responsibility of the local authorities but has not been carried out satisfactorily resulting in the streets of Colombo being dotted with unsightly heaps of garbage which pose potential health hazards as well. While the citizens and authorities pass the buck between each other creating a catch 22 situation where the citizens blame the authorities and the authorities are unable to do much without the help of the citizens, the problem has got progressively worse over the years with no practical and sustained solution put forward so far.
The Sunday Times FT spoke to academics and environmental activists as well to a cross section of the community, by way of a survey, to find out the views of all parties of the equation.
Well-known environmentalist Prof. Sarath Kotagama of the University of Colombo said that garbage is a phenomenon that is seen only among humans. “It is a human product. No other animal in the world leaves behind something that is troublesome.” Having said that, answering a question on whether the problem can ever be solved he reiterated that since ‘we’ created the problem, ‘we’ should solve it.
Environmentalist and lawyer Jagath Gunawardena speaking on the same issue said that the problem can only be solved by adopting the 3-R approach. “Reduce, Re-use and Recycle. If this can be done then the garbage disposal problem will be solved,” he said and added that there are also certain provisions in the legal system that need to be adhered to.
“The solution is to look at the problem in another way. Today people say garbage is money, not something to be thrown away,” argues Kotagama and explained that the world is moving from an agrarian to an industrial economy and therefore adopting a lifestyle of consumerism and discarding. During the 70’s there was an argument that where there is development taking place in a country there will be garbage and that once the country reaches a particular level of development, it will acquire the means and the resources to handle the problem. “Now that thinking is considered wrong as the magnitude of the problem has reached global proportions,” he said. It can’t be ignored until the country reaches the level of a developed country.
According to Kotagama, there are two issues when solving the garbage problem. One is to identify what development is – in developed countries the people have the means to tackle the problem. “People of developed countries are made to pay for the garbage they make. Garbage has to be removed and recycled or manipulated in some way to take it from pollutant to non pollutant – they use the polluter-pays principle.” As an example he pointed out that in London every consumer has to pay to have their garbage removed and the amount they pay depends on the weight of the garbage they produce.
He advocates ‘common but differential treatment’. “If the problem is found to be worse in the Western Province then concentrate more in this area,” he says.
The second problem is in the nature of the garbage. In most developed countries majority of the waste is not organic waste, meaning it will not contain a large amount of degradable material such as refuse accumulated from cleaning vegetables and meat. As most of the garbage is non-degradable solids, it is easier to recycle and reuse. In Sri Lanka, 85% of the household garbage is organic. “Unless it is sorted at the point of production, that is the household, it becomes more difficult to sort when it is all mixed up,” he said.
This thought was echoed by Gunawardena as well. “The main solution is to reduce garbage generation through re-using the polythene etc. Also, educate the public on reusing, recycling and using more recyclables,” Gunawardena said.
Taking a ‘siri siri’ bag as an example, Kotagama explained: “People carry all sorts of things in the same bag. When a person recycles them, he has to first clean them and then separate them. Colour, thickness all of these matter.”
According to him one way to solve this issue is to minimize the bulk of garbage produced. This could be done by sorting at the point of production and by reusing materials that can be reused. Since the waste produced is 85% organic, sorting would be easier if it was partly decomposed. That being said, if sorting is done by the consumer at the point of production and he separates the solid waste from the organic matter, recycle and reuse would become much easier and less costly. “In many developed countries, many supermarkets act as collection centres for things such as glass bottles and cardboard cartons,” he said. These are very simple systems which help and without such measures this problem can’t be solved.
Garbage is created by the elite and supermarkets create the most amount of garbage, Kotagama said adding that 30% of the country’s population is responsible for all the garbage that is produced. Places that promote consumerism will then promote production of garbage. “What can the consumer do with the waste if not throw it?” he questions. “All the consumer can do is bring it back to the producer or throw it. If both the consumer and producer both respond, then even the middle-man must take a certain responsibility”
Gunawardena said that the problem needs to be tackled by the local governmental authorities because once garbage is dumped by households in the dumping grounds, it becomes government property and nobody else can deal with it. Answering a question as to why previous attempts by the government to involve the private sector have failed, he said the reason for the failed attempts by the private sector is the “lack of commitment by the private sector”.
Recycling and reusing is easy for solid waste but what can you do with organic waste, asks Kotagama. Recycling and reusing organic matter is non operable, it has to be disposed of. There are three possible methods – permit it to decompose naturally, incinerate it or bury it. Natural decomposition is not viable at such large volumes. Unlike in rural villages where decomposition could take place, in the cities the rate of decomposition does not match the rate of production. That results in a pile up of garbage, emitting various odours.
Incineration is also not practical as organic matter contains approximately 70% water. Before it burns, it has to get rid of the water and that consumes large amounts of energy and therefore cost of burning will be high, Kotagama said.
The third option is to bury the garbage and create what are known as sanitary land-fills. This requires the garbage to be pre-treated so that it won’t cause any danger while decomposing.
Gunawardena said, “Finding land is difficult, but that is the problem of the concept. We are still sticking to the age-old concept; that of dumping waste only. If a proper re-cycling scheme is formed, only very little land will be required to dump the nonrecyclables and to incinerate the hospital waste.”
He emphasized that hospital waste must be incinerated. Since there are so many hospitals in Sri Lanka, if waste can be collected from each and incinerated in one spot, this problem might be solved. “Since the issue in Colombo is land the only other way to handle this is to increase capacity to process,” Kotagama said.
Colombo produces 1000 tons of garbage a day and it has a floating population, people who travel into the city everyday - one million -bring with them their garbage, another environmental activist who declined to be named, said. According to him, this floating population does not care at all about the problem. “Most of them have the NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude. As long as the garbage is taken out of their hands they don’t care,” he alleged.
Kotagama also referred to this attitude saying when the authorities tried to create sanitary land-fills outside Colombo, the people in those communities refused. “Some of those proposals were technically very sound but the people said they didn’t want Colombo’s garbage in their backyards,” he said.
Kotagama said that garbage disposal is not entirely the responsibility of the government. “Garbage clearance can never be a subsidy,” he said, adding, “Either you pay for it or you change your attitudes. We can’t pass the buck on to the local governments. I must facilitate first by sorting, then paying.”
He said that there are four ways to do anything regarding the environment. Firstly, it is by bringing in laws. Second would be to use fiscal and monetary mechanisms such as increasing production costs for potential garbage producers and giving incentives to the producers who are more careful and work to minimize garbage production. Thirdly is the use of technology. Garbage can turned into different products. Methane that comes out from decomposition of organic matter can be captured and used for energy.
“The culture where garbage is seen as something more than refuse must come in,” he said. There were two instances where the production of methane was started in Colombo, but methane can’t be produced without garbage and people don’t bring their garbage for these operations to carry on. “You can’t create a system without meeting the costs,” he said. Fourth and most important and also the most difficult change to make is the attitude change. “If you’re not committed to do it, it won’t happen” the Professor said.
Speaking of the private sector involvement in solving this problem, he said that there is a stigma attached to it. “People don’t want to be known as the person who collects garbage. The society must come to a point where we have to recognize that garbage is our own product,” Kotagama said.
“The solution to this problem has to be long term because we have created a long term problem,” he said. Contd. on page 11
“We all knew that this was there but we didn’t do anything about it. Now, to get over the past and the present, processing must be doubled and we have to be willing to clear it by paying”.
Speaking from the other side of the fence, Udaya Gammanpila, Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) said the main reasons for the aggravation of the problem is that in local authorities, responsible for garbage collection, there is the lack of technical and financial capacities and maintenance. “Because of these reasons, the authorities are failing,” Gammanpila said and added that the CEA and the Ministry of Environment are working together on a national approach.
The two organizations together have launched the “Pilisaru” programme which will be phased out through the next three years. The Treasury has allocated Rs 2 billion for this project and it has also empowered the CEA to collect a levy which will total another RS 3 billion.
It is this levy that was introduced in the 2008 budget in the form of a green levy of Rs 20 that will be collected from every household.
The bill for the Environmental Conservation Levy Act will be introduced to Parliament in the first quarter of 2008, Gammanpila said. Along with these funds there will also be several aid agencies that will also help solve this problem.
Among them are the World Bank, JAICA and KOICA, The programme will promote segregation at the point of collection and will also look at options like sanitary land-fills, said Gammanpila.
He added that the CEA has the necessary expertise and technology that is required for this kind of land-fills and expressed that it is the local authorities who deal with garbage that need to have this knowledge. “We will solve this problem in the next three years,” he said.