Look in the mirror
Taking responsibility for the garbage crisis
He didn’t mince his words. Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, Senior Environmental Engineer, World Bank – never shy of being forthright – last week revealed many home truths about Sri Lanka’s environmental crisis, blaming civil society too for the mess. Speaking at a breakfast meeting organized by the Environmental Foundation Ltd (EFL) and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and attended by the corporate sector, government officials and environmentalists, Pilapitiya said there was enough and more laws to manage the environment but the implementation was constrained by lack of discipline, will power and political commitment.

“We blame the government (instead of blaming ourselves) for the degradation of the environment. As consumers, we like fancy packages to be wrapped around our food. That not only costs the environment but adds to our cost,” he said during the open forum on showing the business community that there are economic benefits in managing waste.

Referring to the pollution of the Beira lake, he said the cost of preventive action to preserve the lake is $150,000 compared to remedial (repair) costs of $ 19 million and noted that a bulk of the people living in and around the lake who dump their waste into the lake are from affluent families.

Pilapitiya said there are 17,500 houses in and around the Beira which pollute the lake and out of this, only 1500 slums and shanties; the rest are affluent homes. “So the biggest culprits are affluent families.”

On another point, he said local councils don’t operate a proper solid waste management system because it’s too costly and these administrations don’t have money. He said they are not going to do uncomfortable, politically-suicidal exercises like raising taxes or rates to resort to costly waste management systems.

In the first place, he argued, residents in local councils elect their administrations on national issues and not local ones. Garbage is never an issue at a local council election, “so why should councillors worry about garbage?” he asked.

Appealing to the corporate sector to invest in waste management systems, he said it made business sense. In countries like the US consumers are looking at the labels and making sure the products they buy are made by companies that conform to good practices, abhor child labour and are environment-friendly citizens.

He said the often-discussed solution for the garbage problem – incinerators – is not the right solution. Some 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s waste is organic matter and not favourable for incineration. “It’s like burning a banana skin as against paper.”

“We should not waste time on incinerators. We should go beyond that debate and look at other options like biogas for example,” he said adding that whenever local councils discuss the garbage issue, their focus is on technology to improve dumping or disposal instead of looking at ways of managing waste.

Achala Navaratne, an environmental scientist attached to EFL, spoke of the “not in my backyard” culture. “We don’t want garbage in our backyard, so we put it out. The municipality collects it and dumps it far away, in another person’s backyard. We are both happy because the garbage is not in our backyard,” he said, citing how civil society is part of the problem in this crisis – not only central and local governments.

Referring to continuous flooding in the city even for light rains, he said this was because wetlands – which absorbed this water – are being continuously filled for development. Garbage is also dumped in wetlands and canals. He said EFL is launching a programme to change the mindset of Sri Lankans towards protecting the environment.

Both Pilapitiya and Navaratne said there was no objection to economic development as long as it is sustainable and takes into account the environment and other issues.

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