Waste management needs holistic social intervention

When a country lacks genuine good governance; government administration becomes weak. Politicians become misled as they do not receive from a passive, poorly disciplined and unprincipled bureaucracy appropriate advice for social development. Political commitment to implement the pledges they made to the people when they came to power, has vanished.

by Lionel Bopage

( June 10, 2017, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) In an environment where affluent families are dominant, garbage becomes waste though it may then become an important source of income for some of the poor people living in urban areas. It is said that in countries such as Sri Lanka, one percent of the urban population, that is at least about 15 million people survive by separating what can be reused from the waste that others dispose of.

In areas like Blumenthal and Meethotamulla where garbage has been piled up into mountains, and in areas proposed such as Ekala where garbage is to be re-piled, some people survive by finding something beneath these mountains of garbage to sell or eat. The people, who go through these garbage mountains are subject to poisoning and toxic smoke and face various kinds of diseases. When managing waste in a country, betterment of the lives of such people needs to become part of that management process.

In the subject curriculum of environment used in many schools, waste management can also be included. Creating awareness of students from kindergarten upwards and their parents and neighbours through educational activities conducted at their homes and providing them with the necessary facilities is an important part of a waste management programme. A national program of waste management can be launched using such school-based activities on waste management as well as the activities that can be practised in day to day life as a model.

Contribution to the tragedy

Meethotamulla is not the first garbage mountain that has collapsed. Unless conscious measures are taken to prevent such situations from occurring in the future, it will not be the last. One cannot talk about this garbage mountain without mentioning the fact like everywhere else in the world, Lankans also live in a consumer society, in which investors act to maximise their profits at the cost of human life, regardless of the moral or legal consequences. Bribery, corruption, bloodshed and murder are recurring motifs of such an inequitable society, as evidenced by the repressive measures the Lankan state used against protest campaigns the communities living near this garbage mountain carried out for the last several years.

All successive governments, politicians and the bureaucracy who have not considered or disregarded these issues and all those people who have not paid attention about this issue have directly or indirectly contributed to this tragedy. Until the end of the nineties, many in Lanka used ceramic ware, banana or lotus leaves to consume food and drinks. Local authorities at the time arranged waste collection and disposal operations successfully, though such operations became defunct at a later stage.

The situation changed in this century with plastic being used in day to day life as a very common and inexpensive raw material. Due to the short life span of plastic products, an enormous amount of garbage started piling up in our environment. Lankans began using disposable plastic ware and bags, as well as polythene wraps to pack and consume their food and drinks and then dumping that plastic rubbish everywhere. This waste started being piled up plenteously, not only in the surrounds of Colombo, but also in faraway villages.

Global waste generation

This garbage crisis is not a problem confined only to Sri Lanka. Many countries that celebrated the World Earth Day on the last 22nd April find waste management turning into an escalating dangerous issue. When the amount of garbage thrown out around the world is taken into consideration, only less than half of the world’s population enjoy the privilege of systematic and regular waste collection.

According to the estimates the World Bank had made in 2011, cities around the world generate about 1.3 billion tons of waste every year[1]. The amount of waste is expected to increase to 2.2 billion tons in the year 2025 and to 4 billion tons in 2100. As shown in the diagram below, the highest waste generating countries of the world are the United States of America, China, Brazil, Japan and Germany. During the past decade, Australia’s waste generation has increased by 170 percent[2].

Mega cities in Asia are facing a serious challenge of disposing waste. Smokey Mountain with a population of about 13 million in the city of Manila in the Philippines is one of the largest lands refilled with waste. Thousands of people who live here and use the waste become victims of toxic smoke every day. Mumbai in India with a population of about 12 million find it difficult to locate land to refill with waste. The city of Jakarta in Indonesia with a population of around 11 million is overflowing with waste. The city of Bangkok in Thailand with a population of around 10 million was covered with smoke for weeks due to waste mountains catching fire recently. These situations leading to environmental pollution are not only harmful to the health of the general public, but may also lead some developing countries to a state of desolation covered almost entirely with toxic poisonous gases.


The chairperson of the “WasteZero” initiative in the USA states that we do not consider waste management as an issue so long as we cannot see that waste. It cannot be so in Sri Lanka as waste has been piled up everywhere for everyone to see. Compared to electricity, water and gas, there is no price to be paid for waste disposed of, and this is said to be one of the factors influencing less emphasis on waste. It is also said that when arrangements are made to efficiently dispose of waste, we are influenced to put away garbage even more.

Accordingly some experts say that measures are to be taken for each household to pay a fee according to the weight or the size of waste that household puts away[3]. It is said that due to the “WasteZero”’s support for charging a fee for every bag of waste disposed at a waste collection centre, waste recycling has increased two-fold and waste disposal has reduced by 44 percent. However, for many Lankans, who are already paying a heavy tax out of their small income, this will become another burden on them. Obviously, it can become a burden that they could not bear.

Waste generation and management in Sri Lanka

Lanka generates less than 15 million tons of waste annually. Nevertheless, many local authorities find managing even this amount of waste a huge burden. A substantial part of revenue of these authorities is spent on disposing rubbish. Due to increasing urbanization, industrialization and consumerism with population growth, not only the amount of waste generated is rising, but also the constitution of waste (for example, electronic waste: e-waste) is also changing. When compared with the land size and the population density of the country, this is a worrying development. For managing the existing and the future exponential increase in waste , there are no signs of a timely policy platform or a clear programme, except for the great vocabulary of politicians.For such a plan, some key elements for consideration would be the facts that the composition of waste is changing; the amount of waste is accelerating, the collection of waste is more expensive than waste disposal, and in particular, the collection of waste remains mostly inefficient. Despite many people thinking that this issue could be avoided by taking the waste mountains in their surrounds elsewhere, the outcome of such a step would be to impose this issue on people living in another area. Some others think that by burning garbage in the open or using incinerators, this issue could be solved. Even though such measures can be used as part of the solution, one step for a real solution to the problem is to make arrangements to collect waste efficiently. However, a holistic solution for waste management cannot be achieved without social participation, working to change the cultural attitudes and behavioral patterns of people,.Around the year 1970, I have seen some households in Nuwaraeliya using human excreta during their agricultural work. Being harmful to public health and putrid gases released, this process would have come to a standstill. In the villages and surrounds of the cities, some of those engaged in agricultural work make mixed fertilizer from waste, and even using vermin. Rural people in India and Nepal very cleverly engage in this type of activities. Without dumping decaying garbage on street corners, they use barns, boxes and concrete pits for this purpose. They sell mixed fertilizer to nurseries and farmers. They separate plastic parts from garbage and sell them. Remaining garbage is buried, or burned.Yet, in locations where population density is high, it is difficult to carry out such activities. Government intervention is necessary to develop technological facilities needed for the management of waste being collected in cities. If this cannot be done, then such waste needs to be moved to appropriate, less populated areas. For this, after negotiating with local authorities, arrangements could be made to launch on a national scale a programme that is based on a scientific analysis.

Importance of Genuine Good Governance

When a country lacks genuine good governance; government administration becomes weak. Politicians become misled as they do not receive from a passive, poorly disciplined and unprincipled bureaucracy appropriate advice for social development. Political commitment to implement the pledges they made to the people when they came to power, has vanished. Policy platforms, mechanisms and programmes needed for good governance are nowhere to be seen. When such a situation prevails, it is not surprising that the outcome is that the public service becomes inefficient and local authorities are unable to maintain essential services.In such circumstances, those who wield power and those who are close to them come forward, as they choose, to achieve their personal objectives. The result of this inefficiency will be soaring ‘peoples’ protests. Through such protests people themselves come forward to take initiatives to address such social issues. Making communities aware of and training them in waste management cannot be an arduous task. What is needed is to make a positive change in people’s attitudes relating to putting away waste and generate the attitude among them that waste is something that can be used as a resource.

Society towards waste management

The recycling behavioural patterns that can be employed at households can be positively influenced by means of a school based practical waste management education model utilising the experiences and inspirations found among the generations. By this, knowledge and understanding of primary school students can be developed significantly; thus, the message of “reducing, re-using and recycling” of waste can also be carried over to their families and friends. When good actions are observed, they can be motivated to use such actions again and again. By doing so, it will be possible to link them to a sustainable waste management process.Urban waste management is a crucial factor in maintaining our ongoing relationship with the environment around cities. Efficient and sustainable waste management depend on several factors, including the existing development trends, the socio-economic composition and the commitment of the government and society. Therefore, it is a unique challenge that we are faced with in this epoch.It was reported recently that because waste found in Sri Lanka is highly moist, such waste cannot be used for recycling and power generation, sanitary land filling methods should be used for wet waste management, an area in the Puttalam district had been selected for this purpose, and China was willing to assist with this project. In some countries of the world, for example, in China and Singapore, management of such wet waste is carried out.

Experience of China

In the past few decades, Chinese people have moved in vast numbers from rural areas  to urban areas. Because of this, there had been a rapid increase of population in the cities and a huge change in lifestyles. Enormous changes in the consumerist lifestyle of nearly 1.4 billion people generated a massive flood of waste. As such, the not so developed general waste management services have been severely affected. In urban waste management, China appears to be relying on a formal government administered system and an informal system that is not under the control of the government.About 300 million tons of garbage generated annually; a huge amount of this waste is generated in the cities. The common waste management service that exists is to collect unsorted urban solid waste for land filling in suburban areas or their surrounds, or as close as possible to the countryside, or for burning using incinerators. Despite the allocation of containers for separating recyclable waste, the government’s waste management service does not have the capacity to implement such a recycling methodology. It is also said that a large amount of electronic waste passes through a shadow market.[4]

We know that the waste management in the cities of China has adversely affected the lives of people living there. It is said that the weak infrastructure used in the collection of garbage and the lack of investment and enforcement in waste management are consolidating the social inequalities of the people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who migrate to the city from the village. Reclamation of land for refilling with waste and installation of incinerators for burning waste close to the suburbs where poor immigrants are inhabiting not only bring in toxic gases, but among some of the disturbances include pollution of sound, soil, water and air caused by trucks transporting that waste. Thus, the interior of prosperous cities remains relatively clean, while the environmental pollution the garbage of the residents in those cities is exported to small towns and poor communities, who have been politically and economically marginalized from the city.[5]China has tried various methodologies to overcome the challenges urban waste has caused. A few years ago, China tested certain advanced theoretical technologies capable of mechanically separating urban waste material, and convert bio-degradable components into compost material, for making mixed fertiliser. However, the toxic sediments produced were not only unusable; those sediments also became a health hazard. The unsorted waste containing organic matter is not an efficient burning fuel. Due to the large amounts of additional fuel that were needed, it became a loss-making exercise.Regulation of waste incineration in China is also unsatisfactory. The environmental pollution the toxic gases emitted from burning waste has become one of the most pressing environmental and health issue for the needy communities living around the edges of cities. The interest the Chinese central government has shown in recent years about the use of anaerobic digesters to decompose organic waste can be viewed as a positive step. It is reported that now China has launched several large scale pilot projects that use anaerobic digestive agents.

Experience of Singapore

In the year 2000, Singapore generated around 7600 tons of waste per day. There was no further land available in the mainland to dispose of waste by landfill. Singapore could take rapid effective measures to overcome the growing waste management crisis because of the political commitment of its government and leaders, it being a small country, and its economy being a strong one. In 2001, Singapore launched a program to raise the waste recycling ratio. A landfill was built on the island of Semakau on land reclaimed from the sea.Singapore introduced waste sorting and recycling process for its residents and a system of waste collection. Schools, offices, shopping malls and factories were brought under the recycling program. By the end of 2005, 56 percent of the Singaporean households had been contributing to the recycling process. Thus, Singapore could reduce the volume of waste going into landfills and produce power. By employing modern innovative waste disposal methodologies, about 38 percent of Singapore’s solid waste materials is used for power generation, about 60 percent is recycled and about 2 percent is used for landfilling. Its four plants generating electricity from waste, which is tantamount to about three percent of the country’s electricity needs.According to the Executive Director Eugene Tay of Singapore’s WasteZero-SG agency, megacities of Asia can learn many lessons from Singapore. He thinks that these cities need to take a step backward, and after emphasising on the aspects of “reducing” and “reusing” of the waste management cycle, need to look at waste disposal as the last resort.[6] 

Initial steps of waste management

The initial step of a programme of waste management in Sri Lanka needs to make arrangements to change the habits and behaviour of people towards waste. Key aspects that need to be in such a plan include minimising the use of material that leads to the generation of waste, motivating them to separate waste and reuse whatever items that can be reused, recycling and encouraging them to regularly dispose of waste.Funds or loans received from the government or international bodies can be used for implementing a waste management process. Nevertheless, if a local body cannot cover the costs needed for the daily activities required for this, it will not be able to maintain waste management on a regular basis. It is possible to reduce the per capita ecological footprint in Colombo and other cities by introducing a socially more reasonable approach in the use of resources towards urban waste management. This is crucial in reducing the ecological impact due to urbanisation. Using the resources in a fairer manner, our cities can be maintained in a more sustainable manner. Addressing the ecological injustices of the currently existing waste management system will also be a step towards alleviating the social inequalities that exist among all those who live in and use our cities.For effective implementation of the methodology that will be used for waste management as designed, the following need to be satisfied:·         local authorities need to have the knowledge and ability required to monitor and assess the work that is expected from a private service provider engaged in waste management;·         the methodology used to collect waste needs to match with the needs and intentions of the residents in the local authority;·         taking steps necessary for waste management only after consultations with those who manage and handle waste; and·         not to impose those measures on them;Otherwise, the waste management system will neither be embedded in society nor be regularly maintained.Experiences of other countries have shown that the use of some very sophisticated technologies for power generation from waste does not go together with certain facts. Therefore, in determining an appropriate technology for waste management in Sri Lanka, it will be important to consider the following:1.      Is the proposed technology compatible with the composition of the waste generated in the country?2.      Is that technology compatible with the existing or futuristic recycling needs?3.      Is it possible for the people resident in the local authority to sustainably maintain that technology?4.      Is the methodology the local authority use advanced enough to properly utilise that technology?For every unit of waste reduced, reused, or recycled, it is not necessary to spend on collecting or safely disposing that unit of waste. What is important for cities that do not currently engage in waste management, would be to identify simple, appropriate and affordable solutions that can be gradually implemented. Doing so can provide the best affordable solution to the people. As the first step, collection of waste can be expanded to include the whole city; and locations where garbage is openly piled can be taken under the control of the local authority and make those locations into waste disposal centers. Creating an environment for the public sector including local authorities, citizens, private sector including businesses to work together, the cycle of reducing, reusing and recycling waste can be taken forward while safeguarding public health, and the environment.

1 thought on “Waste management needs holistic social intervention”

  1. Meetotamulla Garbage Dump killed many people. No one has been charged so far. The people who ran it enjoy their life in Bombay with the money they made from it and other businesses.

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