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Environment protection

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World Environment Day has increased in importance over the years, as the public becomes more aware of how important protecting the environment is to human wellbeing. Perhaps the single largest cause that has caught public attention in recent years is the need to tackle Sri Lanka’s garbage problem, particularly the use of plastic. 

The Meethotamulla disaster awakened a nation’s conscience. A stricken public accepted new laws to reduce single-use plastic, indeed even called on the Government to use public funds to fast-track establishment of recycling plants and incinerators, so that existing mountains of garbage could be reduced. For months, there were publicity campaigns as the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) instituted garbage separation and the public actively attempted to follow the rules. Yet all these measures proved to be short-lived. 

Despite banning of single use plastic from the beginning of this year, and attempts to encourage more biodegradable options, the public have quickly lapsed into their previous behaviour patterns. Plastic bags and lunch sheets are as prevalent as ever, with companies that invested in producing environmentally-friendly alternatives complaining that they are being outplayed by smaller operators who are illegally supplying the market with non-biodegradable plastic. Efforts to separate garbage have also reduced, and limited action has been taken to hold the CMC responsible for the Meethotamulla disaster, even though an inquiry found that the procedures implemented by the CMC were questionable.

This week, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) went on record admitting that they had been ineffective in cracking down on illegal polythene producers and pledging to launch a new round of raids later this month. Additional efforts by the Government to provide tax concessions and other incentives to encourage entrepreneurs to introduce green products have been non-existent. Even grants promised to assist polythene producers to obtain raw materials have failed to materialise, according to the industry.

Well-established businesses have also taken few steps to meaningfully address the garbage problem. For example, while large chain supermarkets in other parts of the world announced timelines to roll back single use plastic in packaging of fruits and vegetables in response to consumer concerns, their counterparts in Sri Lanka have been noticeably silent. Many of these supermarkets have also pledged to reduce post-harvest losses as part of their greening strategy. There are many other industries that can also take a much larger role in protecting the environment.

For all the Government’s pledges to protect the environment, coal power plants are still discussed at policy level. Deforestation and poaching continues at alarming rates, and repeated weather disasters indicate that Sri Lanka must start paying more attention to its environment.

The Government cannot continue to respond to these issues in the manner they have in the past. In fact, a response to these crises is exactly the problem. Kneejerk reactions give way to corruption, and the exacerbation and creation of new problems. It is up to the State now to learn from experiences past, and implement decisive regulations that prevent such crises and tragedies altogether. The public are willing to do their bit, but they must also be drawn into a larger process that encompasses the entire country.

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