Plastic Waste: Where Do We Put It All?
By Faadhila Thassim
Plastic waste has been a long-lasting issue that has been of an immense threat to the environment of many countries including Sri Lanka and although there have been bans on certain plastic items in different phases locally, environmentalists believe that this alone does not address the issue to the required degree.
In a case study carried out by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) on breaking the plastic cycle in Asia it was stated that plastic waste management is a big challenge within Sri Lanka adding that despite the imposition of a ban on certain types of plastic, people still produce large amount of plastic waste daily adding that owing to the lack of inspection and gaps in procedures there is a potential risk of waste plastic being imported to the country illegally.
According to the Sri Lanka Export Development Board, currently Sri Lanka has over 400 companies engaged in plastic processing with a total sum of Rs 15 billion invested in plastics processing locally.
Almost 50 per cent of this sum has been received through Foreign Direct Investments and out of this, 66 per cent of the total investment is exclusively for processing of plastic products for the export market. Around 500,000 metric tonnes of plastic/ polyethylene is imported into Sri Lanka and 70 per cent of it is used locally.
Plastic waste management, measures adopted, pitfalls
The case study focusing on the need for a proper waste management system, stated that most South and East Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, do not have proper waste management strategies, regulations or facilities and therefore resort to open dumping and burning which is harmful to human health, oceans and the environment.
South Asian countries are also accused for mismanaged plastic waste and the contamination of the world’s ocean while plastic recycling mechanisms in Sri Lanka are also weak.
The Government has undertaken many initiatives to improve waste management systems in the country by way of development of policies, strategies, guidelines, legislation and provision of infrastructure facilities for waste management.
As the issue of plastic waste is most acute in the Western Province, the Western Province Waste Management Authority was established according to the Western Province Waste Management Authority Statute, No. 01 of 2007 (Applicable to the Western Province). The authority implements and provides technical assistance on several recycling projects in the Western Province.
CEJ further stated that a solid waste-fired thermal power station is currently being constructed at Muthurajawela by the Urban Development Authority and that it will accept 630 metric tonnes of waste from Colombo and Gampaha suburbs. This is a 10 megawatt power station while another such plant is under construction in Karadiyana which will receive 500MT of municipal solid waste per day from the Western Province Waste Management Authority. They stated that although most plastic waste will be burned at these two plants in the future, incineration is not in itself the best solution to plastic pollution because it would be of a threat to public health and the environment.
The Aruwakkaru Sanitary Landfill, for which a proposal was put forward in 2015, received approval in late 2017. The project consists of two waste transfer stations, transportation and a sanitary landfill. While the landfill life time has been set to 10 years the concerns raised in relation to this project is that there is no guarantee that the waste sent to the landfill will be segregated.
The case study stated that the Waste management systems should be zero waste oriented linking to life cycle management of products and processes as much as possible with appropriate technology.
The CEJ further stated that thereby existing internationally and nationally accepted appropriate waste management concepts should be practised with special emphasis on waste prevention approaches that would require, “Re-Think‟ as the basic prerequisite for conducive and accountable social transformation.
‘’Sustainable consumption and production can significantly address the current and future challenges of waste management while the application of market based instruments including ‘Polluter pays principle’ and ‘Extended producer responsibility’ throughout the life cycle of products, production, and provision of services should be recognised as effective waste management tools maximising resource and economic efficiency’’ CEJ added.
National Strategy for Solid Waste Management (2000) and the National Policy on Solid Waste Management (2007) were developed by the Ministry of Environment as the initial attempt to formalise the waste management practices in the country.
However, this policy and strategy was not properly implemented for various reasons and open dumping was observed in the Colombo and suburbs in the last two decades, CEJ noted.
Plastic Waste Imports and Exports
Import and export of plastic waste in and out of Sri Lanka is tracked under HS code 3915. However, it is still possible for plastic waste to enter the country. In May 2018, more than 200 shipping containers filled with waste from the United Kingdom (UK) arrived at the Port of Colombo, CEJ stated.
The containers were filled with used mattresses, carpets, contaminated hospital waste, and several other waste materials and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) discovered another 130 containers that had been unloaded in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone as well.
The CEJ filed a suit in the Court of Appeal to halt transport of the containers within Sri Lanka, other than for purposes of re-export to their origin in the UK.
The CEA is maintaining a list of plastic and polythene collectors and recyclers in Sri Lanka which surpasses over a 100, some of them operate on a large scale while some operate on a smaller scale.
CEJ recommendations to mitigate pollution caused by way of plastic:
1. Introduce mechanisms to track waste plastic at the Port.
2. Enact regulations to ban the manufacture, use and import of single-use plastics on an urgent basis.
3. Improve accountability of manufacturers/traders on disposal of plastic items.
4. Promoting plastic free zones such as in schools, government offices, hospitals.
5. Improve law enforcement.
6. Adhere to the National Waste Management Policy and,
7. Improve management level and political commitment towards minimizing plastic usage.
Polythene regulations and its abuse
Under the provisions of Section 23 W of the National Environmental Act, No. 47 of 1980, Extraordinary Gazette No. 2034/37 banned the use of all forms of polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene products or polypropylene products as decorations in political, social, religious, national, cultural or any other event or occasion.
Further under the provisions of Section 23 W of the National Environmental Act, No. 47 of 1980, Extraordinary Gazette No. 2034/38, the manufacture of food containers (lunch boxes), plates, cups and spoons from expanded polystyrene for in country use and the sale, offer for sale, offer free of charge, exhibition or use of food containers, plates, cups and spoons manufactured from expanded polystyrene within the country is banned.
As per the provisions of Section 23 W of the National Environmental Act, No. 47 of 1980, by Extraordinary Gazette No. 2034/36 banned open burning of refuse or other combustible matters inclusive of plastics and failing to abide by this provision would subject the offender to a fine of 10,000 rupees or 2-year imprisonment.
CEJ stated that the enforcement of polythene regulations still remains a big challenge in Sri Lanka as Manufacturers find gaps in the laws to continue to use and manufacture plastic products adding that the CEA continues to raid illegal polythene/lunch sheet manufacturers since the ban.
A Conservation Levy was introduced for the HDPE bags in 2008, under the Environment Conservation Levy Act, No. 26 of 2008, however it was abandoned after a Court Order was issued by Supreme Court against charging two rupees for a plastic bag.
The other reason was that the conservation levy was sent to the “Environment Conservation Levy Account” of the Consolidated Fund which was never spent for national recycling efforts of the Central Environmental Authority.
National Environment Act No 47 of 1980 does not allow the import of any waste material to this country. A prior approval from CEA is needed before any waste/ recycled material are so imported.
Sri Lanka has prohibited the import of post-consumer material and is a signatory country to the Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, and plastic waste was recently added to its control list. However Sri Lanka has no separate regulations to control imports under the Basel Convention.
While the efforts of the Government to reduce single use plastic and that of tracking down those operating in contravention to such ban is commendable, certain other important aspects of plastic waste management and that of a future ban of plastic products with a stringent monitoring system in place is crucial to address the plastic issue.