ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 18

In Weligama, garbage doesn’t smell

A top environmental specialist's dream project comes alive but can it be sustained?

By Himal Kotelawala

Some 140 km south of Colombo is the picturesque Weligama bay, with countless fishing canoes floating on clear blue water that seems to glitter in the midday sun. The air is pleasantly warm and cool at the same time and there is a feeling of serenity all round. Yet, a mere few hundred metres away from this pretty picture is a sight one would hardly associate with serenity: a garbage dump.

However, as hard as this may be to imagine, it is indeed a sight worth seeing because this is, by no means, your average dumping ground. It's an innovative, state of the art recycling plant where organic waste is converted to compost daily, and sold to the public at an affordable price.

In the middle of an 18-acre land at Kapparatota, Weligama, this Solid Waste Management (SWM) programme is being carried out by the Weligama Urban Council (WUC). The site is surrounded by a healthy growth of plantain and papaw trees, and other vegetable patches, all of which are fed the same compost that is manufactured at the plant, and according to its supervisors, without a drop of artificial chemical added.

The project took off on June 1, 2006 with the help and expertise of Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, who is the Lead Environmental Specialist for the South Asia Region of the World Bank and has a Ph.D on Solid Waste Management. In fact, this project is his brainchild.

According to Dr. Pilapitiya, Sri Lanka has the technical know-how, the necessary environmental regulations, and the funds to carry out proper SWM projects, but projects never actually materialise because the most important ingredient is not there -- political commitment.

UC Chairman Mohamed

"Political commitment and leadership are essential for a project of this nature," says Dr. Pilapitiya. After several failed attempts to get the authorities to listen to his idea of establishing a proper SWM programme in Weligama, his hometown, Dr. Pilapitiya finally got the call he had been waiting for in April 2006. It was from the newly elected Chairman of the WUC, M. H. H. Mohamed.

He told Dr. Pilapitiya that he had heard of his idea to start a compost programme for organic waste in the Weligama area and requested him to help the WUC to carry it out.

After several discussions, the land that had earlier been used by the WUC to dump garbage was selected for the project. It was covered with earth and five acres of it was allocated for compost manufacture.

Today, between seven and ten tonnes of garbage are brought daily to the site by tractors. Site supervisor H. K. Indrajith says the garbage is first sorted into biodegradable and non-biodegradable piles, and into organic and inorganic ones. The organic piles, which consist mainly of leaves fallen from trees, and discarded food items (vegetables, fruits, rice, etc. collected from households, markets and hotels), are left for about two months to turn into compost, he explains.

Water is added regularly to ensure proper formation of microbes (microbes are necessary for the process of decomposition). The piles are turned over every fortnight for aeration so that microbes could get oxygen. According to Dr. Pilapitiya these are called 'aerobic' microbes, which are active, non-smelling organisms.

Different bins for different types of garbage.

This is probably the only waste management project in Sri Lanka that doesn't smell, says Dr. Pilapitiya with a smile. The piles get darker as they gradually turn into compost. After it turns into what appears to be dark soil, the contents of the pile are further processed by a 'cutter'. Then it is filtered, using a big, mechanical huller, into an almost fine powder which is packed into bags and sent to the shop outside.

The shop, named Ranpohoniya, is part of the project. It sells the packed compost bags at seven rupees a kilo. The shopkeeper says he sells about 750kg a day. Fertiliser sellers, tea plantations, home gardeners and a local NGO buy most of the compost from Ranpohoniya.

The SWM project, the best functioning one in the country according to many, would not have been possible if not for the commitment of the WUC Chairman. Dr. Pilapitiya has nothing but words of praise for Mr. Mohamed. The WUC didn't have a proper dumping ground, says Mr. Mohamed. The usual practice had been to dump garbage in a mountainous pile and then cover it with soil using an excavator.

"The Urban Council had 45 permanent labourers, six tractor drivers and an excavator, but it couldn't show results. Then we met Dr. Pilapitiya, and he came forward to help us," he says. Solid waste management is an issue that cannot be solved without the cooperation of the public.

The WUC has placed more than 750 bins in and around the town limits for garbage collection. They're colour-coded and labelled so that the people can identify which sort of garbage should go into which bin. For instance, leaves and discarded food items should go to one bin while paper and glass belong to another.

Ranpohoniya compost shop

"Garbage collection should be properly coordinated with the public. Not even America has an 80% public participation. If there is at least 25% in Sri Lanka, that would be quite an achievement," says Dr. Pilapitiya. Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka enthusiastically approves the Weligama SWM programme.

"From most of the programmes carried out by the local councils in the country, the Weligama one is the most important, and we will help develop it," says Minister Ranawaka. When Dr. Pilapitiya first came with the concept of a compost plant, his biggest worry was its sustainability. That fear is still there, he says.

"If the chairman gets voted out tomorrow, the SWM programme could be over," says Dr. Pilapitiya in a concerned voice. But Chairman Mohamed says the WUC is planning to institutionalise the project to ensure continuity under any political leadership. Minister Ranawaka also hopes to come up with a structure that will ensure the continued success of the project no matter who comes into power.

This is a fine example of a project finding success with the right political backing. Similar projects could be carried out in the entire nation if only the political leadership genuinely wanted to do so, and gave the right job to the right man, instead of their political friends.

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