Over the last few years, the world has been moving to zero-waste shops, supermarkets have been rejecting plastic and a mini-international war has been declared on plastic straws. But, in Sri Lanka, the changes feel more cosmetic than genuinely effective.
Supermarkets have been introducing greening logos, cloth bags and have been attempting to collect disposable plastic, which may all be emanating from a genuine desire to reduce wastage and make their industry more sustainable. But, there is also the feeling that it is too little. Major supermarket chains around the country still use and disseminate vast amounts of plastic, as much as 35% of harvested fruits and vegetables are thrown away and only a sprinkling of food-linked companies are trying to support efforts to reduce wastage.
There is also the sense that Government policy loopholes and inefficiency, together with private sector apathy, is leaving the war against garbage largely side-lined. It is true that several waste-to-energy plants have been kicked off and the Government is working to establish more recycling and compost manufacturing centres around the country, but there is also a sense that these are sporadic and more effective policies, once considered, have fallen by the wayside.
For example, in November 2016, Cabinet passed a landmark proposal by President Maithripala Sirisena to introduce the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) to hold importers of plastic and other non-degradable materials and consumers who use the products responsible for their actions.
A special committee was to be appointed to make recommendations on PPP, which is widely practised around the world, and to establish an implementation method as well as a pilot program. Despite laws and awareness programs, producers, traders and consumers irresponsibly dispose naturally non-degradable containers, electrical and electronic waste to the environment. About 60% of polythene and plastic imported to Sri Lanka (210,000 MT) is disposed in the environment.
Under the PPP system, the law could charge a temporary deposit from the consumer, by the trader or producer at the time of purchase of goods and reimburse it when non-degradable containers and materials are returned. For electronic and electrical items used for a long period, an annual interest calculated on the deposit could also be reimbursed, according to the initial proposal.
Yet such an effort to make stakeholders more responsible petered out. Currently, many garbage collectors are refusing to stockpile glass bottles because there are few recycling plants for glass bottles. In the olden days, companies would make the effort to collect the glass bottles that their products are sold in to reduce waste and costs, but despite a renewed focus on sustainability, such efforts remain outmoded. According to reports, environmentalists have pointed out that Cabinet had failed to support measures to push companies to collect and reuse glass bottles from collection points, resulting in glass bottles, which could have been a solution, now adding to the garbage problem.
These are part of simple but crucial steps in how Sri Lanka can fight its garbage problem at the household level by holding stakeholders accountable. PPP is simply the idea that a company should pay the total social cost, including the environmental costs of their product. Colleting and reusing glass bottles makes economic sense when environmental costs are attached. Smaller companies should be helped to be more waste-conscious. Larger investment in sustainable products and reducing waste at the shop level are two steps that would make a huge difference to reducing waste.