Over the past 50 years, plastics production went from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and is expected to double by 2030. When inadequately disposed in open dumps or poorly managed landfills, plastic waste ends up in the inland waterways and, eventually, in the ocean. According to researchers, cities with expanding populations near the coast are responsible for 60 percent of global mismanaged plastic. This is partly due to the rapid population growth and expansion of slums, solid-waste disposal and city services in general are inadequate or non-existent.
Sri Lanka is no exception – as with everywhere else in the world, plastics are omnipresent. Despite the country’s recent ban on single-use plastics, this material is still extensively used. Want a coffee to go? It will be wrapped-up in plastic and placed in a plastic bag. For most Sri Lankans, the use of alternative packages and bags is not possible, mostly because biodegradable bags are more expensive than the regular ones. Overall, plastic waste accounts for around 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s total municipal waste. But unlike in most developed countries, Sri Lankans don’t have access to proper waste management infrastructure, so plastics – among other kinds of waste – are mostly burned, dumped or landfilled. Since plastics are treated just like any other waste, most of them end up in rivers and polluting lagoons and beaches. With the tremendous growth of the waste problem, the environmental and human costs of this issue are becoming unbearable.
Because not only is nature choking on plastic; so are the people.
In Colombo in April 2017, a 91 meter-high landslide of garbage buried 145 houses and left over 30 dead. This fatal disaster shed light on the extreme consequences of such a poor waste management system. Following this tragic event, the Sri Lankan government rushed to provide a quick, but long-term solution to the waste disposal issue. Thus, the decision was made to develop a new landfill site to dispose of Colombo’s garbage: the Aruwakkalu landfill project.
Launched in February 2018, this project aims to transport trash by trucks to the new site, situated in Wanathavilluwa, Puttalam, a distance of approximately 170 kilometers from Colombo. Since its very inception, this project has caused controversy across the country. On one hand, Sri Lanka’s Megapolis and Western Development Minister, Patali Champaka Ranawaka, argued that “[…] each Sri Lankan creates a kilogram of waste per day, and it is but fair that they are expected to pay for the management of the waste they create”. On the other hand, this massive project worth US $100.5 million has been entrusted to the China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd. (CHEC), a World Bank blacklisted company under its fraud and sanctioning policy. In fact, CHEC has been identified and debarred by the World Bank Integrity Vice Presidency for its “fraudulent, corrupt or collusive practices”.
But for the local community of Puttalam, the problem with the Aruwakkalu landfill project goes beyond the CHEC’s shady reputation. Puttalam – just like many other Sri Lankan coastal towns – relies heavily on small-scale fishing. Already struggling with their own waste management system, the community is now afraid that this new garbage mountain would end up contaminating the Puttalam lagoon, which would affect both the fisheries and the agriculture industries of the area. Gathering environmental specialists, citizens, local politicians and religious leaders, the Clean Puttalam campaign is pointing out the disastrous consequences this new infrastructure might cause for the population. In fact, according to Iflal Ameen, the Administrator of the Clean Puttalam campaign, this project has been launched without any consultation of the local communities.
Moreover, by joining the CleanSeas campaign, Sri Lanka has committed to implement other measures such as increase the recycling of plastics and set the goal of “making its ocean and coastline plastic free” by 2030. This project is not only controversial, but also means that the country is moving in a direction completely opposite to the one it has undertaken to take. Thus, organizations such as the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) are further arguing that the state should rather invest in improving local recycling infrastructure; small-scale waste management systems; and awareness campaigns with local communities.
NAFSO is an NGO that brings together small-scale fishing communities across Sri Lanka. Aiming to educate and engage its members in sustainable fisheries practices, the organization is also fighting for equality in resource distribution and food sovereignty. Since its establishment in 1993, NAFSO has been working with many national and international NGOs such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Collective of Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) as well as the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty (IPC).
This article was written with a special collaboration with Riad Mahdid (currently working for NAFSO in Negombo, Sri Lanka)