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Beating plastic pollution before it beats the world

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By Shanika Sriyananda

The need for polluters to pay for the damage they have caused the environment was highlighted at a panel discussion held to mark World Environment Day, which called on the world to ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ at the University of Colombo recently.

Academics, leading industries in waste disposal, environmental enthusiasts and students discussed the means of beating the plastic menace in the country at the panel discussion which was organised by Environmental Science and Zoology (BEEZ) of the University of Colombo and Biodiversity Sri Lanka.

Colombo University Vice Chancellor Prof. Lakshman Dissanayake explaining the efforts made by the Centre for Environmental Initiative in the university said that the university authorities were concerned about its environment and solving its own garbage disposal issues – separating waste, disposing of it and making fertiliser in the allocated site in the university premises.

“We are working on converting the entire university into a botanical garden. Environment matters in everyone’s life a lot and I will help to initiate any project related to the environment,” he said, welcoming the participants at the panel discussion.

INSEE invests millions of dollars to minimise dust emission

Giving a general overview of Siam City Cement (Lanka) Ltd. (SCCLL), which consumes a lot of natural resources, Chief Executive Officer Nandana Ekanayake said that the company provided diversified and multifaceted sustainable waste management solutions and leading best practices in the country and the communities.

He said that being the leader in the Sri Lankan cement industry, SCCLL, which is also now known as INSEE and was formerly known as Holcim Cement, the company was always mindful of the need to protect the natural environment and society while adding economic value to the nation and that sustainability was in their DNA because if they were not using eco-friendly it would mean they couldn’t sustain in the business.

“Therefore, we are continually upgrading, investing and improving the ways of protecting the environment while doing business,” he said, adding that INSEE Ecocycle has invested $ 5 to 6 million to minimise dust emission.

He said that earlier it was known as the grey sky during the production process. Now it is called the blue sky. “Although the environmental regulations in Sri Lanka are not so tight, as a part of a multinational company, we strictly follow global standards even though legally we are not required to maintain such high standards,” he explained, while spelling out the innovative measures taken to minimise pollution.

INSEE has heavily invested in reducing CO2 emission in the manufacturing process while investing in recycling water, recycling paper, harvesting rainwater, using less water and energy in its manufacturing and kiln processes and promoting natural light and ventilation, while it has also placed more focus on innovation to create environment-friendly raw materials.

“Our company practices strict compliance with environmental regulations locally and internationally, by reducing dust emissions and enhancing water consumption and energy efficiency,” he said.

Ekanayake said that having engineers who were qualified from the Green Building Council, they use international knowledge to minimise environmental damage during the production process.

“Sustainability is a challenge in our industry given the rapid development projects in the country. Colombo is cramped with lots of buildings with different structures coming up, which requires cement. We can’t stop producing or supplying cement because so far for over a century no proper substitute has been found for cement. Until such time, we have to produce this very important raw material,” he said.

Lightweight concrete products

Ekanayake revealed the company’s plans to manufacture lightweight concrete products, which was first exhibited at the Build Sri Lanka 2018 exhibition. This is manufactured using lightweight concrete mixed with recycled paper; a substitute for wood; will help to reduce cutting down trees for wood; durable as it will not be vulnerable to any termite attack and ideal for the country’s humid condition. The product is popular in Thailand, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

He explained the measures taken to reduce CO2 emission by reducing clinker, the raw material from limestone, by replacing it with the alternative material used by other industries.

He said that normally it’s 95% clinker and 5% gypsum but now through innovation the company adds waste like fly ash. The company helps the Government to dispose of fly ash from the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant and the process has helped to reduce CO2 emission during the cement manufacturing process as clinker has been replaced by fly ash.

Reducing CO2 emission

According to CEO Ekanayake, 45% of the coal requirement of INSEE is substituted by different kinds of waste materials – hazardous, non-hazardous and biomass – from other industries and recently the company has helped the Government destroy one tonne of cocaine confiscated by Sri Lanka Customs.

“We did it free of charge because it is a national service.  At present 450 multinational organisations are using us to dispose of their waste, from toxic waste to expired pharmaceuticals. This is a big contribution that we do to society to save their environment,” he said.

Ekanayake said that the INSEE Ecocycle would spin-off its operations as an independent separate legal entity to cater to the national needs in a more diversified manner from 1 July.

The panel discussion was moderated by Sustainability Agenda Ltd. Managing Director and Biodiversity Sri Lanka Advisor Shirani Yasaratne.

Prof. Emeritus Sarath Kotagama said that although as a species human beings used the planet, they had no right to dump waste in the planet, produce waste or talk about how to make money out of waste, treating waste or doing something out of waste.

Avoid waste

“Avoid waste is the honourable thing that we as human species can do to this planet. But we have lost our role. When I say you can live without plastic people laugh at me because most of the people who are living today have not lived without plastics. In my age, I have lived 50% of my life without plastics so there is a problem. Unless you have experience of living without plastics you will not know how to live without plastics,” he said, adding that the challenge was not to ask what to do with waste but not to produce waste.

Prof. Kotagama pointed out that when people were suffering from illnesses triggered by chemicals, the solution was not the hospitals but stop producing food for people that requires usage of chemicals. 

“Our challenge and objective for the future should be not to produce waste by any means. We have not yet explored the opportunities available in nature to use natural substances that can be used. We use 350 polymers in the production of plastic bags when there are substances in nature with less than five polymers which are much stronger than polythene,” he stressed.

However, he warned not to wait for another 50 years to solve the plastic pollution and turn back and claim that people have the worst disasters due to plastics. “It is the time for us to start rethinking on what we are doing. Technology is the solution but it is also the problem. If you really wanted a good world, stop waste,” he stressed.

INSEE Ecocycle General Manager Sanjeewa Chulakumara explaining best practices in sustainable waste management solutions in Sri Lanka said that the waste management hierarchy should be the mantra of everyone and ‘avoid’ was the most important factor.

“But we can’t do it as we are in an environment which we can’t produce zero waste,” he said, adding that the cement production process was thermal, capital intensive and a huge process with an extensive value chain. What we do is we add our cement kiln to dispose of hazardous waste in a highly thermal stable compound up to the level of 90.999999 which is the accuracy we have. This temperature is one-third of the sun’s temperature,” he explained.

Rejects unsorted waste

Chulakumara said that as a responsible cement manufacturer, they couldn’t accept all sorts of waste as they had lots of restrictions and needed to look into the waste that would cause zero harm to their products and people. According to him, the company doesn’t accept hospital waste.

INSEE Ecocycle doesn’t accept unsorted municipal solid waste but is committed to stop burning polyphone and plastic to make a cleaner and safer environment.

“We have invested and developed our capability for 50,000 MT of waste disposal in the cement kiln in 100% environmental friendly manner with zero emissions. We have developed this facility mainly to cater to the waste from the BOI zones. The company has also signed agreements with 50 local councils especially in the Puttalam District to dispose of 250 MTs of sorted municipal waste per month,” Chulakumara noted.

He stressed the need for establishing the concept that polluters pay and also extended producer responsibility.

SISILI Project Consortium Chief Executive Officer Chinthaka Abyesekara explaining on clinical waste disposal spoke on what to do with plastic waste. He said they were in operation for the last four years and nearly 30% of their waste was plastic.

“We have 250 tons on board and collect 10 tons a day. According to the present law, I can’t recycle infectious plastics, because we can’t give a 100% guarantee that they are pathogen-free due to poor segregation. Basically we have to incinerate. Unlike INSEE which has infrastructure placed for cement ours is purely a waste management facility,” he said, adding that the company would totally stop infusing plastic into the incineration process in three years’ time.

Agreeing with Prof. Kotagama on avoiding making waste he said they had to be the solution partners to minimise plastic pollution. Citing his personal experiences in the health and hospitality sectors he said that no premium was given for going green to encourage reducing waste.

“There are lots of companies which win green awards every year for collecting PET bottles and sending them to India. But only God knows what happens to them there. That is not being sustainable, that is called shifting the burden of pollution. But you have to find a way – a lasting solution for this. The easiest action is to avoid waste,” he said.

Tax breaks needed

Abeysekara highlighted the importance of introducing a tax break system, which works purely on performance.

“Here, you get tax breaks depending on how much waste you collected, how much waste you processed, how much waste you produced and gave back to the market. Instead of giving it blindly you will get it on your performances. In this way, it will keep the private sector also on its toes and held accountable and finally the Government can also say that it gave tax holidays for their performances. This is really the way that Sri Lanka can take sustainability forward,” he stressed.

During the panel discussions, a video about Eco Spindles Ltd., which up-cycles PET bottles, stated that the company collects over 1,200 tonnes of PET monthly and has 120 PET bottle collecting centres islandwide. It has machines to compress PET bottles to save space for storage and also cost-effective transportation. Over 250 tonnes of PET bottles are used monthly to manufacture high-quality PET filaments and polyester yarn. The company will open collection centres for the public to hand over PET bottle soon.

Eco-Friendly Volunteers President Kanchana Weerakoon highlighted the need of lifestyle changes to make a positive change in society to manage waste.

“First, I tried to contribute to zero waste, then my family and then society to reduce ecological footprint as eco-friendly volunteers. We believe in individual change for a positive change. We are driving anybody who would like to have a behavioural change,” she said.

Weerakoon said the Municipal Council waste collectors got upset when she said “no kunu” (no garbage) when they came to her doorstep to collect garbage as they couldn’t get ‘bribes’ for taking garbage.

Polluters need to pay

“I have been a zero waster for the last 17 years. When a woman runs a house, she can manage home-based waste without giving it to the municipal councils. I started with rejecting plastics and polythene, etc. We use our own culinary sets to avoid plastic-based sets and straws and cloth bags to avoid polythene bags. We also have home-made soaps and detergents. It is a lifestyle change,” she said, stressing the need for a system where producers pay for what they are doing to pollute the environment.

A third-year undergraduate of the Environmental Sciences of the University of Colombo Dinithi Hemachandra said that they were born to a world filled with plastics and asked why Sri Lankans couldn’t go back to the era where people used environment-friendly means for living.

“We are the change needed to stop plastic pollution. I am not talking about a situation in which one will say that ‘I am not using plastic’ but a situation where one will be able to pick up plastic dropped on the road by someone else and dispose of it correctly,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Assistant Project Coordinator of a community-based waste recycling business Hiroshan Weerawardana asked the audience whether plastic was really as problematic as people say.

“Is there anyone who has not taken any plastic material for the last 24 hours? I know the answer. It is no. Why? Because everything that we use today has some plastic material in them. We are trapped in a world where plastic is everywhere. I say plastic is a magical material,” he said.

Weerawardana displayed some products made by the women in Jaffna using up-cycled plastic to produce file covers, bags, mats, etc.

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