Zeroing in on plastic

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Sri Lanka is in no shortage of crises and it is well-established that all that we are currently experiencing is the cumulative effect of said crises snowballing into one another after being left unaddressed for so long. One such longstanding crisis with severe knock on effects is the battle against plastic in Sri Lanka.

Among the many groups who are working towards battling the devastating impact plastic has had in our country is ZeroPlastic, a national movement aiming to lead Sri Lanka into an era where plastic is used to the bare minimum. Nishshanka De Silva, the Founder of ZeroPlastic spoke with Ceylon Today to explain more about the environmental and also economic importance of moving towards zero plastic and how people are now gathering together to create a plastic free future in Sri Lanka.

Realising the problem

For Nishshanka, it all began with the realisation that Sri Lanka has a massive problem in managing its plastic in late 2019, from multiple research material being published naming Sri Lanka as a highly polluted nation, to Leonardo DiCaprio sharing about Sri Lankan elephants dying as a result of ingesting plastic in landfills. “We’re a very small country in the Indian Ocean, and being this heavily polluted is alarming,” he shared.

Nishshanka regularly dwelled on this fact, until the realisation hit that, “My cutting board is made of plastic, my food covering, my broom, my flowerpots, my bins, almost everything in the bathroom, it was all made of plastic.”

Further delving into the subject, Nishshanka realised that although a small island nation with a population of around 22 million people Sri Lanka is suffering from a massive plastic problem. Nishshanka revealed that studies have reported that Sri Lanka generates nearly 7,000 metric tons (7,000,000kg) of solid waste per day with the Western Province accounting for nearly 60per cent of waste generation, a major portion of all this being plastics discarded into landfills.

He added that the most common plastic waste products are straws, yoghurt cups, mega bottles, lunch sheets, milk packets, meal boxes, polyethylene bags, sachet packets and wrappers.

Poisoning households and killing economies

The increased use of plastics has definitely impacted the environment by exposing natural ecosystems to plastic waste as well as unhealthy levels of toxic microplastics. But Nishshanka notes that by purchasing plastic products, we have also been exposing ourselves and our loved ones to microplastic poisoning as well.

“From the broom to the cutting board, these things wear down and release microplastics in our home, and in our food,” he pointed out.

Nishshanka also noted that our increased dependence on plastic products has led to the dying off of many local industries, killing off many income streams for families throughout the country who are desperately in need of income.

Pointing out that because a majority of the people are opting to purchase plastics over locally made products by the hands of craftsmen, we have inevitably robbed families who have practiced their craft for generations from engaging in their industry, supporting their families and livelihood and an honestly earned meal.

“We’ve taken away the livelihood of local entrepreneurs who are producing plastic alternative products because we don’t buy them. With no reliable source of income for the next generation, more people would inevitably be inclined to start earning as a taxi driver,” he shared.

Taking action

Realising that something needed to be done, Nishshanka decided to make a change in his life, and help others to make an informed choice to help change theirs as well. As a result, the ZeroPlastic initiative was created.

Ceylon Today learnt that the ZeroPlastic initiative aspires for a Sri Lanka that is more responsible with their use of plastic; from avoiding the use of plastic bags wherever possible and recycling plastics when possible to refraining from purchasing plastic products and instead, relying on local craftsmen who use naturally sourced materials to create the products and tools we use. It goes without saying, for substantial change to happen as ZeroPlastic aspires, more people have to become part of this change.

“If we are all responsible for the pollution that is happening, then everybody has to be a part of the solution,” Nishshanka explained.

For this change to take place, he believes education will play a key role, especially in the younger generation, especially youth. Realising this, Nishshanka has tirelessly reached out to local universities and shared his message with the student body.

A ZeroPlastic Sri Lanka

In order for Nishshanka’s vision to become a reality, ZeroPlastic’s reach must spread far beyond just the university ecosystem, and has to reach a wide audience around the country, consistently. Not only that, he needs to coordinate with many thousands of like-minded individuals who have decided to join a network of volunteers for ZeroPlastic’s vision. Of course, the question is how to manage them all.

“What worked for us is a similar model to what you see the Rotaract club do with its organisation,” Nishshanka revealed. Right now there are 15 ZeroPlastic clubs in each University in the country, and their objective is to complete at least one project that furthers the ZeroPlastic objectives in a month.”

A completely self-sustained and governed system, the many ZeroPlastic organisations around the country consistently spread the message about reducing, reusing and recycling plastic to the masses whilst also helping develop the leadership skills and network of volunteer members. But Nishshanka envisions the ZeroPlastic movement to expand to all age groups, in both school students and among the adults.

ZeroPlastic for good

ZeroPlastic has organised and executed multiple projects and programmes that build awareness among the people, including ideathons, hackathons and many more similar projects that help to lead Sri Lanka away from its plastic dependence. Not only that, ZeroPlastic also works with corporate clients on their sustainability and CSR projects on addressing the plastic problem in Sri Lanka as well, with great efficacy thanks to their widespread reach and powerful network of volunteers.

Nishshanka and ZeroPlastic aim to continue growing, reaching public schools throughout the country in the near future, while also expanding into involving corporate professionals in each district. Of course there are plenty of other big ideas that Nishshanka has in his mind, but all shall come to pass in its due time.

ZeroPlastic is a great example of how real people can make a difference, not only changing their lives, but the livelihoods and perspective of others.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage