Sri Lanka’s search for sustainable methods for waste management and disposal
A nation consistently missing the mark on prevention vs. cure
Garbage: Taking Center Stage
Throughout the years Sri Lanka’s waste management process has been a topic that was overshadowed by war, crime, human rights movements, education and politics.
However, as tragedy strikes in Meethotamulla, leaving many lives at a lost and many more displaced, the topic of proper waste management again resurfaces, taking center stage. This brings to light a larger predicament that Sri Lanka is facing a major problem regarding the sustainable and long-term solution(s) for proper waste disposal. With this, citizens of Sri Lanka has come together using active engagement to urge local councils and governments to find a preventative solution, as opposed to a cure, to ensure the events at Meethotamulla would never reoccur.
Yet the question is whether Sri Lanka still headed toward a destructive waste management system, even with the Central Environmental Authority’s (CEA) provision of financial and technical support to implement recycling programmes to over 125 local authorities island-wide.
Scrutinisation of the waste management process has brought to light queries regarding, firstly local council and the government’s ability to implement and provide the public with adequate information toward sustainable waste management and secondly, local households’ lax attitude toward cooperation in segregated waste collection, integral for recycling.
This disparity in garbage collection and separation has led in to many landfills which are becoming far too full and far too fast. Many questions and complaints have been raised in areas such as Karadiyana, Piliyandala as well as in the Ella Pradeshasaba.
With local councils frantically trying to promote and implement the seven  steps of waste management; managing waste at the place of origin; movement of waste from the place of origin; cleaning of public spaces; halting the use of open garbage bins; streamlining transportation of waste; use of waste as a resource; and streamlining dumping sites., Sri Lanka is in desperate need of a revamp to waste management strategy.
The need for sophisticated and innovative waste management systems has never been higher in Sri Lanka, given the devastating accident, that was not unforeseen by many.
As Sri Lanka continues to work within a culture of ‘cure, instead of prevention’, many European countries such as Sweden, Austria, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium have paved their way in waste management solutions. Many entrepreneurs have acknowledged that waste management can be converted into a viable business opportunity. Although, the initial investment does come at a higher cost – but does this mean Sri Lanka should be penny-wise and pound foolish when regarding sustainable waste management methods?
Imagine a country, where landfill waste is less than 5%, with well-developed recycling systems, sufficient treatment capacity, and a well performance with biodegradable waste. Resulting in 100% of household waste being recycled into new products, raw materials, gas or even heat. Now imagine that recycling was turned into a profit making industry where waste was imported.
A true recycling revolution. Sweden, in 2015 had already reached this revolution.
Across Sweden, 950,000 homes are heated by trash; this lowly resource also provides electricity for 260,000 homes across the country, according to statistics from Avfall Sverige, Sweden’s national waste-management association.
In recent years over 100,000 tons of foreign garbage, mostly from Britain was brought in for recycling to power, in addition to the 435,000 tons supplied by Swedish municipalities.
While recycling is not the sole indicator of a sophisticated and well-functioning waste management system, it is certainly a key component.
Germany had approximately 50,000 landfills; and by 2014, this had reduced to only 300, of which neither accepted nor unsorted garbage. In order to get to this point, in 2005, Germany banned traditional garbage dumps transforming many into incinerators, biological and mechanical waste processing factories and 800 sites were converted began producing compost from organic waste. By 2022, they also aim to have decommissioned their remaining landfills and implement plans to utilize all the waste that is created and the energy produced by it.
The German business institute estimates that they can save up to €3.7 billion a year from recycling and the energy produced from their waste. Waste processing systems already save them 20% of the cost of metals and 3% of the cost of energy imports.
Austria, although a small country, now utilize a new high-tech method of waste management which uses bioengineered fungal enzymes for the natural recycling of PET, without the production of any new by-products, with less new production materials having to be made using petroleum and 100% of the material recycled can be used.
Belgium is also a top performer in waste management, it possesses the best waste diversion rate in Europe: 75% of their waste is reused, recycled or composted; all helping to reduce overall waste generation.
Sri Lanka’s quick-fix
Recent rumors have surfaced, with several government sources having confirmed that Puttalam is being considered to be used as a landfill in order to reduce the tension on many of Sri Lanka’s current landfills. With waste planned to be carried along the railway lines and moved to Puttalam, one begs the question, is this a quick-fix or just poor planning?
Surely, a little bit of thought and planning for a better future shouldn’t be made so lightly.
Should Sri Lankan councils and governments look to our European peers and begin on a path to the Recycling Revolution, without the excessive reliance on landfills?