Janaka Perera tackles the perennial issue of our mounting garbage

Garbage disposal has become a perennial issue in Sri Lanka mainly due to the irresponsible attitude of politicians and others in authority, as well as many members of the public. The Meethotamulla garbage dump disaster proved the magnitude of the crisis. Numerous appeals and warnings by residents and concerned groups went unheeded until tragedy struck.

It is no secret that a culture of corruption has contributed to the situation in Colombo – allegedly involving powerful politicians. One of them reportedly demanded a ransom from two foreign companies that offered to solve the city’s garbage problem. Unwilling to accede to such unreasonable demands, we’re told that their representatives left our shores.

A meaningful solution to the garbage problem has become next to impossible because politicians are hell-bent on demanding commissions from such projects.

Affluence and modern lifestyles lead to more waste and garbage. Fifty years ago, we returned milk, soft drink and beer bottles – all made of glass – to the stores, which sent them back to the factories for washing and sterilising before refilling them, so they could be used over and over again.

That was recycling in the real sense.

Pens were refilled with ink. Ballpoint pens weren’t freely available. The razorblades were replaced instead of throwing the razors away merely because the blades were no longer usable.   Cane baskets and bags made of cloth were in common use.

According to Professor O. A. Illeperuma of the University of Peradeniya, a clear and environmentally friendly solution has been available to the urban population since the mid-1990s – i.e. the compost bin, a convenient variant of the age-old garbage pit of the villages. In the past, when plastic and polythene wrappers weren’t available, all kitchen refuse was biodegradable. All of it was thrown into a pit and gradually turned into compost. There was ample space in most premises to also burn fallen leaves and the rubbish in pits.

Since not all families owned refrigerators, people never wasted food. They cooked only what was needed. The three ‘Rs’ (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) that the Western world is recommending today was a way of life in Asia. Illeperuma therefore, suggests that it is high time we go back to these old ways.

Needless to say, creating open garbage dumps in low-lying marshes and elsewhere pollutes the land, air and water. This also poses fire hazards in addition to breeding mosquitoes and rats.

In developed countries, sanitary landfills are used to dispose of garbage where at the end of each day, a thin layer of soil is applied and compacted, the professor notes. This prevents undesirable smells and mosquito breeding. The leach from the landfill goes through treatment plants to destroy any bacteria and only pure water is fed into the surroundings. Since these landfills are lined with heavy-duty polythene, there’s no danger of contaminating the water table.

Electronic waste  is another problem. It contains many hazardous metals and materials, such as nickel, cadmium, mercury, bromine, cobalt, arsenic, lead and heavy metals. When these substances are disposed of in an environmentally unsound manner, they reach the human body through food and water. These substances have the potential of causing cancer, asthma, kidney and liver failures, loss of vision, and ailments associated with the respiratory, metabolic and nervous systems.

Illeperuma is surprised that the private sector has displayed little if any interest in commercialising garbage disposal although in other nations, many companies are turning waste into marketable products – e.g. compost, recycled polythene, and recovered iron and aluminium.

Even for a small business or an individual to produce compost out of garbage only requires space. Waste should be considered a resource rather than a nuisance. Used plastics can be recycled or burned in incinerators to produce power. Wet garbage consisting of food waste and other organic materials can be used to generate biogas for the same purpose.

As Illeperuma suggests, the government should impose a rule that households have compost bins, which are distributed for a nominal fee. This would eliminate any need to throw out rotting food onto the streets, which undoubtedly makes for an ugly sight.

“Someone will start a trade by collecting compost from houses and make a profit for both parties, and we shall be free of the mountains of garbage being dumped anywhere… Has anyone spared a thought for the many animals that died due to ingestion of polythene when they rummaged in garbage dumps?” asks Illeperuma.

He concludes: “I think that each and every person who contributed to the collapsed garbage dump is indirectly responsible for those deaths too, and the damage caused. We can’t blame the politicians and be free of guilt. For anything to be successful, each and every citizen should be unselfish and honest.”