A recent return journey from the hill country brought with it an alarming observation, the frequent nature of which rubbish was thrown out of train compartments. Plastic food and drink containers and plastic bags among other things were casually volleyed onto passing embankments and rail tracks without a second thought.
Upon closer inspection though, it was clear this was no recent phenomena, but then again that is no surprise; only relatively recently, in the last two decades, has the world begun to sit up and truly take notice of the wide ranging and long-lasting effects pollution can have on the world’s climate.
Sri Lanka to its credit has made strides towards a more sustainable future with a renewed push towards recycling. However, it is clear that more needs to be done, most pressing of which would be concerted efforts to increase awareness. It is hard to believe that any person would willingly want to destroy the environment they live in, and therefore, it stands to reason that those who pollute do not adequately grasp the consequences of their actions.
When it comes to synthetic materials like plastic, apart from its horrific impact on wildlife, long-term exposure to air, light and water can result in the emission of toxic pollutants into the atmosphere. As plastics take hundreds of years to degrade, this naturally adds up and contributes considerably to climate change, the effects of which are being felt most radically by those that are least aware of the consequences of polluting.
Sri Lanka is at present experiencing one of its worst droughts, while last year the country suffered catastrophic floods. According to leading climate scientists, these erratic weather patterns will only get worse as average global climate temperatures rise, which means that Sri Lanka needs to get its act together much faster if the frequency of even worse climate-related disasters is to be reduced in the future.
Ironically, Sri Lanka’s efforts at reducing plastic usage have actually worsened the situation because many people have not changed their habits – something which can only happen through increased awareness. Environmentalists and industrialists have said the Government’s strategy to reduce the heavy use of polythene used by the public, by dictating the production of thicker, reusable bags, has in fact backfired, with experts noting that the thicker bags, which were intended to be reused, also produce more plastic waste in the environment and require more resin.
They said the dormant 2007 legislation that was revived in January 2016 by President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also Environment Minister, to require plastic bags thicker than 20 microns, has led to the doubling of resin imports but not seen a reduction in waste and most people still dispose of bags after one use.
This is largely because knowledge of climate change and its impact has not been readily conveyed to villages along with implementable solutions. It is therefore clear that policy planning and implementation alone is not enough. The wider public needs to be made aware that protecting the environment is in their best interests, something that can only be achieved via effective communication between policymakers, local government bodies, and local communities. If not, there may not be much of an environment left to protect.