The recent Meethotamulla disaster has once again drawn attention to the importance of recycling to solve the country’s mounting garbage problem, but recyclers charge that they are getting little support from authorities, who have not gone beyond repeated assurances. The irony, as pointed out by those in the recycling industry, is that although there are [...]


Recycling sidelined: Recyclers hit out at official lethargy on mounting problem


The recent Meethotamulla disaster has once again drawn attention to the importance of recycling to solve the country’s mounting garbage problem, but recyclers charge that they are getting little support from authorities, who have not gone beyond repeated assurances.

The irony, as pointed out by those in the recycling industry, is that although there are sufficient number of companies engaged in recycling to handle the country’s garbage, they don’t get enough recyclables due to shortcomings in the collection process.

The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) has a catalogue of licensed waste collectors and recyclers of various categories. The online list of plastic/polythene waste collectors and recyclers, which has not been updated since July, 2015, lists 210 companies. About 40 however, are listed as having ceased operations.

“Many more companies have shut down now,” Sudesh Nandasiri, Board Chairman of Sri Lanka Recyclers Association (SLRA) told the Sunday Times. Mr. Nandasiri is Group Managing Director of Ceylon Waste Management Group, a licensed collector and recycler of electronic waste. The SLRA claims to have a membership of 4500 made up of collectors, transporters, suppliers and recyclers.

Pointing out that the volume of waste being generated in the country was increasing, Mr. Nandasiri noted that it was logical to expect more recycling companies to emerge, rather than existing ones shutting down.

The main reason he said, was that companies were not getting enough garbage to sustain their businesses.

According to SLRA, about 40 per cent of the country’s waste is non-biodegradable but most of it is recyclable.

The Provincial Councils and Local Government Ministry announced last year that garbage must be segregated as biodegradable, plastic and glass from November 1 or local authorities would refuse to collect them. The SLRA, while welcoming the decision, observed that the directive had not been properly implemented by most local authorities.

“The people were extremely supportive for the most part, but after several days of collecting waste separately, many local authorities simply went back to collecting all the garbage in one vehicle and dumping them together,” Mr. Nandasiri said.

“When recyclable items become mixed with things like oil and food, they become contaminated and the quality of the product goes down, leading to them being rejected. We need the material to be clean and dry,” he explained.

According to Mr. Nandasiri the process of collecting segregated waste was ineffective due to several reasons. One was that some local authorities had outsourced the process of collecting garbage. “The companies are interested in collecting a high volume of garbage to increase their revenue. They would lose revenue if 40 per cent of the garbage was collected separately and went elsewhere,” Mr. Nandasiri explained.

Second was that garbage collectors have not been instructed properly on the different items that can be recycled. They focus on a few items that they know could be sold for a profit. The rest is thrown into a garbage dump. Meanwhile, many local authorities complain that they do not have enough vehicles to collect and transport segregated garbage.

Recyclers say there are enough companies engaged in recycling to handle the country's garbage, but they don’t get enough recyclables due to shortcomings in the collection process

The SLRA has put forward two proposals to resolve these issues. One to award separate tenders for the collection of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. The second to set up “secondary sorting centers” to sort out various types of recyclable garbage. The garbage, once sorted, could be handed over to those collecting and recycling different types of non-biodegradable waste.

A pilot project to set up secondary sorting centers is due to be launched in the Colombo district shortly.

The association has also launched a programme aimed at educating those engaged in collecting recyclable waste. They will be mainly local entrepreneurs whose shops purchase items for recyclers.

“We will be educating them on following environmental regulations and why they should not throw out non-biodegradable material. We are also working on providing these shops with the SLRA logo to make people aware that they are part of our association and that they can safely handover their recyclable items to these entrepreneurs.”

Recyclers however, need more Government assistance to work at full capacity, said Buddhika Muthukumarana, General Manager of Viridis (Pvt) Limited and SLRA’s Vice President.

Mr. Muthukumarana, whose company recycles plastics including PET (Poly Ethylene Tetraphthalate) bottles, said recyclers have been active in Sri Lanka for about a decade. His company alone has recycled and exported 165 million PET bottles since the company’s inception. Recyclers though, have not been granted any concessions by the Government, he complained. “We have been talking to authorities for about five years now regarding our issues, but there hasn’t been much progress.”

Although the state sector had competent officials who were knowledgeable about the garbage issue, they are not in a position to take decisions on their own, he asserted.

According to Mr. Muthukumarana, there is an urgent need for a central authority to be established for garbage management as the current system, which has different agencies in charge of various aspects, has failed. “The best set up is to have a central body whose decisions are final. This will help recyclers as well.”

CEA’s Waste Management Division Deputy Director General Eng. J.M.U. Indrarathne acknowledged many recyclers had gone out of business due to not receiving enough material. “The public also has a duty to be more active in sorting out garbage to be given for recycling.”

According to the CEA, the percentage of recyclable garbage that actually go to recyclers is still less than 20 per cent. “We must get that to 100 per cent if recycling efforts are to be successful,” he added.

Mr. Indrarathne further said garbage segregation must be made compulsory by law so that everyone, including local authorities get the message and come on board. According to him, a CEA official who came for an inspection at his e-waste factory on April 19 had advised him to actually downsize his operation. “Even after a tragedy like Meethotamulla, they don’t seem to have learned,” he quipped.

Polythene is recyclable if clean, says official

Banning polythene, following the Meethotamulla tragedy, would be ill-advised, as most of it can be recycled, say those engaged in recycling polythene.

Anura Wijethunge, President- Polythene Manufacturers & Recyclers Association (PMRA), affiliated to the Sri Lanka Recyclers Association (SLRA), told the Sunday Times that, only a few polythene items are not recycled in the country. Mr Wijethunge, who is also a Director at Polymers (Pvt) Ltd, said these included biscuit packets and milk food packets, due to the aluminum foil contained in the packs.

Used lunch sheets were also not being recycled, as they are covered with food and oil, and the process to clean and recycle them is not economically viable, Mr. Wijethunge said, adding that, however, they oppose an immediate, outright ban on lunch sheets, as there is no available alternative yet.

“The Central Environment Authority (CEA) has proposed a ban on lunch sheets less than 40 microns, from the current level of 20. But they haven’t even properly enforced the existing ban on sheets less than 20 microns. Illegal manufacturers of polythene, and even some legal ones, have been flouting the ban,” he charged.

Mr. Wijethunge said the best solution was to produce oxo-biodegradable lunch sheets that decay. He pointed out that polythene items produced here for export to European countries, for example, were biodegradable.

“What most people don’t know is that, even polythene is recyclable, provided they are not contaminated,” he added. “We even collect torn bags, as long as they are clean.”

Mr. Wijethunge said there were prospects of a small industry of collectors emerging, who would go around collecting polythene items such as bags, to be given to recycling centres, if there is more public awareness, which is sadly lacking.

He said it was important to introduce awareness programmes on garbage management at school level, as many schoolchildren are ignorant of recycling.

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