Towards responsible environmentalism in solid waste management

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01In an article published as early as 1992, Jim L. Bowyer, professor of forestry at the University of Wisconsin pleaded for responsible environmentalism. He described responsible environmentalism essentially as “paying attention to human needs, including the need for materials, as part of any environmental action”. He was responding to the agitations by environmentalists at that time against the logging of forests to make paper. He pointed out that even with 100% recycling, US still needed to cut down more forests to meet its demand for paper.

These views were expressed way before China, India and Indonesia and other countries in South East Asia brought in three billion or more of people to the global economy. With their eagerness to get out of poverty and consume more adequate quantities of goods and services, this population has put additional pressure on the environment. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) declared by United Nations in September 2015 is largely a recognition of the need to end poverty and ensure prosperity to the billions of poor while protecting the planet. 

Solid waste management is an area where environmental protection issues meet face to face with economic development issues. As I argue later, plastics and polythene are instrumental in bringing modern conveniences to the poor and promoting their well-being, yet, plastics and polythene have become the more visible side of solid waste management crises everywhere. The result is knee-jerk reactions by policy makers to ban such conveniences as cheap lunch sheets and plastic water bottles. 

Banning is too easy, but it is a sledgehammer tool which can hurt economic activity across the board. It is harder to design market mechanisms to control the use, but such measures can be more effective and less damaging. Thoughtless banning is what I would call irresponsible environmentalism. Effort to balance the economic and social needs of the people with environmental consideration is responsible environmentalism.

How do we practice responsible environmentalism in solid waste management? In this column I explore a few options.

Avoid blatantly irresponsible behaviour

Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, now labelled as an eco-traitor for his anti-Greenpeace views, says that too much of today’s “pop-environmentalism” is filled with sensationalism, misinformation, and fear. As I detailed in my previous article ‘Meethotamulla disaster – Assigning the blame correctly’ ( such sensationalism is exactly what happened in the solid waste management discourse beginning in nineties in Sri Lanka. 

Our environmental activists demanded 100% recycling when even Sweden the current exemplar in waste management was sending more than a quarter of its waste into landfills in the 90s. Today USA and UK still send close 50% of their household waste into landfills. Through their agitations, our environmentalists together with ‘oppose everything to death when in opposition” shot down proposals for sanitary landfills in Padukka and several other places. A sanitary landfill at Dompe was constructed finally, but it is hardly used. Meanwhile mountains of waste were gathered in populated area such as Meethotamulla killing 30+ innocent people. 

Another case of irresponsible environmentalism is the shooting down of an initiative by the Ministry of Environment and supermarkets to reduce use of plastic shopping bag through user fees. As the media reported in 2009:

“Sri Lanka’s top supermarket chains, with the environmental ministry, announced earlier in the year at a ceremony, that they are charging for plastic carrier bags to discourage their use. But a three judge Supreme Court bench Monday struck down the move and directed Sri Lanka’s consumer authority to issue a directive within a week banning supermarkets and other retailers from charging for carrier bags given to shoppers. Court also directed supermarkets to give bio degradable alternatives if plastic bags were considered environmentally harmful. Liyanagamage Ariyapala, a resident of Kottegoda, has taken the issue to court supported by lawyer Sudath Jayasundera. Ariyapala told court in his plaint that the environmental ministry had banned the use of polythene bags of a certain thickness but no authority had been granted for supermarkets to charge for plastic bags. Ariyapala said with an escalating cost of living it was impossible for a consumer to pay additional amounts for bags which were previously given free, and the new practice simply enriched the coffers of supermarkets. Ariyapala said if plastic bags were considered environmentally harmful, retailers had a duty to provide environmentally friendly bags. [Lanka Business Online, 13 Oct 2008]”

I think it was environmentally irresponsible to demand environmentally-friendly bags when the utility of such bags are yet to be proven and they could have been unaffordable to a country at our stage of development. The responsible thing would have been to request for an amendment to the Consumer Act allowing the charging of fees if such levies are directed towards a public interest purpose related to the product, or something to that effect.

Do not ask the poor to reduce their consumption

It pains me to hear public intellectuals or politicians and officials sitting in the comfort of air-conditioned offices talking about back-02to-nature lifestyles free of plastics. They wonder why people chose a cheap one hundred rupee item which could breakdown in a short time over a three hundred rupee item with a longer life. In which planet do these people live? When you earn 1000 rupees per day, the choice is 100 rupee purchase with whatever longevity or no purchase at all. 

For example take the ubiquity of plastic furniture. These plastic furniture has enabled families to sit around a table and eat together even in the poorest homes. This furniture may last a maximum of 10 years, but they are better than the alternative wood products which are out of the reach of the poor. Wood products also means cutting down of more trees. 

Another case is the use of shampoos for hair care. A bottle of shampoo at a minimum cost of 200-300 rupees is out of the reach of a daily wage earner, but the availability of smaller sachets of shampoo at rupees 20 or so makes it possible for young women from such families to purchase shampoo as needed per wash. More solid waste but more fulfilment for a large group of people.

The much-maligned lunch sheet is another case. These sheets are a saviour for the poor but frowned upon by others for whom other options are viable. Think of somebody leaving home at four in the morning to get to work in Colombo. In the old days the wife would get up at and cook and wrap food for the day. Today a ‘buth’ packet is available for a reasonable price from anywhere and the wife does not have to wake up at three in the morning. These small conveniences do not make a consumer society. They are consumptions that lift people out of poverty and ensure their well-being and happiness.

Stop banning just because one can

The easiest thing in the world is to ban a product. But bans are often difficult to implement, in particular if the user needs are left out in the policy making. Consider the following time line of the polythene sheet ban:

2006: Gazette notification No. 1466/5 banning the manufacturing or sale of polythene or any polythene product of twenty (20) microns or below in thickness 

2009: Government makes labelling compulsory for polythene products with effect from 15 August

2015: Government spokesman says polythene ban would be strictly enforced

2017: Laws continue to be ignored

Laws are ignored rightly I would say, because these laws are driven by irresponsible environmentalism. These laws have been drafted without any cost benefit analysis or feasibility of implementation. Are there sufficient inspectors to monitor? Do they have the right equipment? Even if 20 micron gauge polythene is used at higher expense, what assurance do we have that they too will not end up in garbage dumps? 

Recycling success of polythene is highly sensitive to world oil prices. Oil price fluctuations affect the market because low oil prices would flood the market with virgin polymers. Proper labelling of different types of plastics is also is an issue in developing countries. Would it not be more prudent to allow people to use cheap plastics, but bale the used plastics for future use in waste to energy plants? 

As a Pennsylvania State University document ( points out, plastic waste that were buried in landfills years ago can be excavated and incinerated in a process known as landfill reclamation. Has the Government looked at these alternative scenarios at all? 

Provide landfilling and other final disposal facilities

In solid waste management, as in most other enterprises involving unpleasant material, we need to begin with the end in mind. The final disposal of solid waste involves two basic steps: Recycling and landfilling.

To keep the discussion simple, I define recycling broadly to include (1) recycling of plastic, paper, polythene metal, etc. into materials that are close to the original in their chemical composition and (2) converting waste to materials such as compost, bio-gas or energy where the product is very different from the original, physically or chemically. 

What cannot be recycled has to be landfilled properly in what we call sanitary landfills. Contrary to emotional responses from some environmentalists, human have always produced material that cannot be reused or recycled. Broken crockery or clay items that serve as markers of ancient civilisations are some examples. 

Before a municipality starts collecting food waste separately it should have a designated composting facility, bio-gas facility or waste to energy facility to handle the collected waste. If paper or plastic is collected separately, recyclers should be available to handle each type of collected waste. 

Even policies to regulate materials have to be done with full set of implications in mind. Before the Central Environment Authority tries to re-impose the ban on thin polythene sheets, they should check for the availability of facilities to recycle 20 mm gauge polythene. Or all polythene thin or thick will end up in landfills. 

Enable market mechanisms to dissuade landfilling

If we are serious about reducing polythene use we should begin with places where carrots and sticks can be applied. One clear instance where sticks worked is when supermarkets charged five rupees per grocery bag. As we learned then, use of plastic grocery carry bags decreased by more than 50% during the few weeks the charge was operative. A change to the Consumer Act as proposed before should be priority in future solid waste management strategies. 

Pursue waste to energy options

There was a time when the release of dioxins and other highly-toxic chemicals was a problem in waste-to-energy operations. Today waste-to-energy processes have improved vastly and many countries are adopting these. 

In Sri Lanka such projects were on the drawing board for years. It is gratifying that present Government has finally signed on two contracts awarding the processing of 500MT in Karadiyana (down Borupana Road in Ratmalana) and 400 MT at Muthurajawela with commitments by the Government to buy electricity from them at Rs. 36 per KWH. 

Allow civil society to monitor

The devil’s in the detail as they say. The waste-to-energy options need careful study by groups with no stake in the outcome. Corruption seems to be ingrained in the political culture in such opaque ways that we cannot tell an honest politician apart from a dishonest one anymore. 

‘Responsible’ environmental-activists and other civic groups have to be involved not only to assure transparency in the procurement process for these waste-to-energy and other large contracts, but also ensure that regulatory frameworks are in place and lethargy does not delay these projects. The involvement of such oversight groups should be mandated for solid waste infrastructure projects, the regulatory processes and the management processes at the local authorities.

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