People are naturally messy like other social animals – monkeys and bats who leave piles of debris under fruiting trees following feeding frenzies.  Until recently, any litter we left after a picnic was rendered to almost nothing by microbes, fungi and other natural agents.  Humanity produces more “waste” than all wild animals put together but [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Paradise lost to plastic waste


An accumulation of plastic refuse in Kandy

People are naturally messy like other social animals – monkeys and bats who leave piles of debris under fruiting trees following feeding frenzies.  Until recently, any litter we left after a picnic was rendered to almost nothing by microbes, fungi and other natural agents.  Humanity produces more “waste” than all wild animals put together but it’s only in the last 70 years that this is producing an indelible stain worse than ugly.

Two major streams of waste now threaten the Sri Lankan environment: sewage and plastic.  Sewage is another story but what of the non-biodegradable plastic, produced from foreign oil?  Over 90% of this is tragically single use disposable packaging or consumables like bottles, straws, cups and polystyrene.  Mostly not recycled, a great deal ends up in the oceans.  The trouble is that plastic, unlike organic waste is persistent, chemically stable from hundreds to thousands of years and generally only breaks down into particles that enter food webs eventually returning to contaminate our bodies.

Since 1974 global plastic production has rocketed by over 620%.  Broadcaster David Attenborough thinks that the eight  million tonnes of plastic anually dumped in the seas is worse than sewage.  There are five vast accumulations of ocean plastic of which the north Pacific “gyre” represents the largest, a stew of plastic at least 800,000km2 in extent.  According to a report in Science, 2015, about 30% of this is from China topping a list of five countries responsible for over 60% of ocean plastic, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines Vietnam, and Sri Lanka with a poor waste infrastructure (PWI).  In a more recent analysis the top five countries include Thailand making Sri Lanka the sixth largest polluter. How does a tiny Indian Ocean island exceed larger competitors as a garbage champion?

Remember the advent of the “siri-siri” bag in Sri Lanka from the 1980s, a noisy novelty?  In South Africa, trees covered in plastic bags earned them the sobriquet “the national flower” now applicable to our island.  Before them provisions were wrapped in newspaper cones tied with jute or coconut string with meat and fish in waterproof taro leaves before carriage in rattan baskets.  Remember banana rice packets, wrapped palm leaf or refillable glass bottles, waxed paper and clay pot containers?  Somehow, we managed like this for millennia.

Today, we are force-fed plastic bags.  Some restaurants cover plates with plastic to avoid washing them.  Everything is encased in this ubiquitous substance.  We only consider contents rather than the wrapping but it’s the packaging that now haunts us in ways more sinister than appearances.

Discarded plastic nets and lines kill vast amounts of marine life in a process described as ghost fishing.  Thousands of turtles die as a result of ingesting plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish; whales are also affected.  A third of the chicks of Laysan albatrosses die as their parents feed them plastic of a dwindling population of 1.5million.  Meanwhile, sewage treatment plants struggle to deal with plastic microbeads used as an abrasive exofoliant in toiletries that readily pollutes waterways – already there are more plastic particles in the Danube than fish fry and it is predicted that oceanic plastic will outnumber fish by 2050.

In Sri Lanka the evils of plastic are increasingly evident.  They cause floods such as those that inundated Colombo 7 not too long ago by blocking drains and sewers during heavy rain.  They kill grazing animals among others after blocking their stomachs and help destroy life in aquatic habitats.  They form horrible, unsightly piles on roads, in streams and even on the outskirts of forests and litter paths used by people.  They empower mosquitos and diseases like dengue.  Forming the bulk of persistent, solid waste, they take up untold space in wilderness such as landfills on the fringes of Wilpattu National Park, land all too precious in the confines of the island.  The authorities in Gampola were dumping such waste on the top of Ambuluwawa hill, before it tumbled down overwhelming small farms and polluting local rain-fed streams into rivers including the Mahaweli.  We are now unwittingly consuming plastic, with all the associated chemicals such as flame-retardants and pthalates through packaging and via seafood that has accumulated plastic debris.  There is increasing evidence that the chemicals in plastic entering our bodies cause cancer, infertility and birth defects.  Last but not least, Sri Lanka is offloading its plastic load into the surrounding oceans affecting the whole world.  But plastic is still seen as fashionable and powerful packaging businesses will fiercely oppose government plans to moderate the menace.

The most important solution is to reduce consumption of single use disposable plastic as highlighted in a recent report by the World Economic Forum by scientists and business – we as consumers have a role.  In Sweden, waste to energy plants produce 20% of the heating in populated districts and 99% of waste is either recycled or incinerated so efficiently that they need to import 800,000 tonnes of waste from outside.  “Sweden runs out of garbage” read a recent headline.  US Company Ecovative is producing a lightweight polystyrene alternative Mycofoam from fungi now championed by Ikea; Japanese researchers are developing algal agar plastic and compostable cornstarch bioplastic is increasingly popular.  A brewery in the US has just developed edible six-pack rings for holding beer cans.  Whereas natural packaging: egg shells and banana peel are hard to replicate, there is demand for such innovation.

England only banned free plastic bags last October (usage has already plummeted by a staggering 80%), China got there in 2008.  New York and Washington DC have initiated bans of Styrofoam and there will be a partial US ban of microbeads by 2017.  In March 2016, the government of Karnataka, India banned plastic production and use: “No shopkeeper, … hawker or salesman shall use plastic carry bags, plastic banners, plastic buntings, flex, plastic flags, plastic plates, … cups, … spoons, cling films and plastic sheets for spreading on dining table irrespective of thickness … and … micro beeds (sic).”  Meanwhile, our government is struggling to implement its 2007 ban on plastic sheeting thinner than 20 microns.

With well-developed waste practices in Scandinavia, Taiwan and increasingly the US, Sri Lanka remains a model of PWI.  The plastic on paradise is piling up and flowing via streams, sewers and rivers into the sea almost exponentially.  In village roadsides, women carry on sweeping up the “national flowers” and packaging creating unsightly, dangerous fires in a country that once boasted more imaginative solutions.

It will be a while before our “statesmen” take serious action.  Private enterprise may have to take a lead – fashion conscious individuals are sporting “I’m not a plastic bag” cloth-bags, emblazoned with promotional logos to advertise brands or services.  People will happily pay more for eating from banana or lotus leaves.  At Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains, brave officials have banned plastic bags.  Perhaps we can start small by at least separating out our waste between biodegradable food waste, recyclables such as glass and cans and non-biodegradable plastics so that they can be processed differently as is happening at a few civilised venues.  Food waste can be composted, fed to animals or turned into biogas.  Glass, paper and even some plastics can be recycled.  There has been a thriving “bothal-pattare” recycling scene for quite a while and I for one celebrate the biodegradable recycled paper bags made from school exercise books with examples of maths or English homework, out of which I consume peanuts in buses. There could be incineration plants in the future that can burn some of our wastes to produce electricity.  Our government needs to ban or tax free single use disposable plastic and incentivise biodegradable solutions like our predecessors did with their smarter botanical solutions a great deal more.  As in Singapore, the casual disposal of litter should be fined. Canadian environmentalist professor David T. Suzuki has said “Garbage is a state of mind”.  Garbage could be profitable based on recycling, animal feed, organic fertiliser, biogas and waste to energy incineration.

We should all endeavour to cut back on plastic use by encouraging solutions such as refillable bottles, the greater use of metal, cellulose, biomaterials and voicing our concerns to shops and companies.  Businesses and shops with a zero waste emphasis are appearing in the developed world and we can all divest, by degrees in plastic.  I’m saving money by buying less plastic, making my own shampoo and cleaners – internet searching makes the refinement of environmental choices easier.  With a little technology, we can now even charge phones by burning domestic waste.

Keep saying no to single use disposable plastic – they’re bad for our bodies and wildlife.  Say hello to recycled paper packaging, paper straws (they do exist), rattan baskets, plant leaf wraps tied in organic string.  Such timeless packaging is today increasingly fashionable around the world, better for our health and the planet.


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