By Lionel Bopage –
In an environment where affluent families are dominant, garbage becomes waste though it may then become an important source of income for some of the poor people living in urban areas. It is said that in countries such as Sri Lanka, one percent of the urban population, that is at least about 15 million people survive by separating what can be reused from the waste that others dispose of.
In areas like Blumenthal and Meethotamulla where garbage has been piled up into mountains, and in areas proposed such as Ekala where garbage is to be re-piled, some people survive by finding something beneath these mountains of garbage to sell or eat. The people, who go through these garbage mountains are subject to poisoning and toxic smoke and face various kinds of diseases. When managing waste in a country, betterment of the lives of such people needs to become part of that management process.
In the subject curriculum of environment used in many schools, waste management can also be included. Creating awareness of students from kindergarten upwards and their parents and neighbours through educational activities conducted at their homes and providing them with the necessary facilities is an important part of a waste management programme. A national program of waste management can be launched using such school-based activities on waste management as well as the activities that can be practised in day to day life as a model.
Contribution to the tragedy
Meethotamulla is not the first garbage mountain that has collapsed. Unless conscious measures are taken to prevent such situations from occurring in the future, it will not be the last. One cannot talk about this garbage mountain without mentioning the fact like everywhere else in the world, Lankans also live in a consumer society, in which investors act to maximise their profits at the cost of human life, regardless of the moral or legal consequences. Bribery, corruption, bloodshed and murder are recurring motifs of such an inequitable society, as evidenced by the repressive measures the Lankan state used against protest campaigns the communities living near this garbage mountain carried out for the last several years.
All successive governments, politicians and the bureaucracy who have not considered or disregarded these issues and all those people who have not paid attention about this issue have directly or indirectly contributed to this tragedy. Until the end of the nineties, many in Lanka used ceramic ware, banana or lotus leaves to consume food and drinks. Local authorities at the time arranged waste collection and disposal operations successfully, though such operations became defunct at a later stage.
The situation changed in this century with plastic being used in day to day life as a very common and inexpensive raw material. Due to the short life span of plastic products, an enormous amount of garbage started piling up in our environment. Lankans began using disposable plastic ware and bags, as well as polythene wraps to pack and consume their food and drinks and then dumping that plastic rubbish everywhere. This waste started being piled up plenteously, not only in the surrounds of Colombo, but also in faraway villages.
Global waste generation
This garbage crisis is not a problem confined only to Sri Lanka. Many countries that celebrated the World Earth Day on the last 22nd April find waste management turning into an escalating dangerous issue. When the amount of garbage thrown out around the world is taken into consideration, only less than half of the world’s population enjoy the privilege of systematic and regular waste collection.
According to the estimates the World Bank had made in 2011, cities around the world generate about 1.3 billion tons of waste every year*. The amount of waste is expected to increase to 2.2 billion tons in the year 2025 and to 4 billion tons in 2100. As shown in the diagram below, the highest waste generating countries of the world are the United States of America, China, Brazil, Japan and Germany. During the past decade, Australia’s waste generation has increased by 170 percent**.
Mega cities in Asia are facing a serious challenge of disposing waste. Smokey Mountain with a population of about 13 million in the city of Manila in the Philippines is one of the largest lands refilled with waste. Thousands of people who live here and use the waste become victims of toxic smoke every day. Mumbai in India with a population of about 12 million find it difficult to locate land to refill with waste. The city of Jakarta in Indonesia with a population of around 11 million is overflowing with waste. The city of Bangkok in Thailand with a population of around 10 million was covered with smoke for weeks due to waste mountains catching fire recently. These situations leading to environmental pollution are not only harmful to the health of the general public, but may also lead some developing countries to a state of desolation covered almost entirely with toxic poisonous gases.
The chairperson of the “WasteZero” initiative in the USA states that we do not consider waste management as an issue so long as we cannot see that waste. It cannot be so in Sri Lanka as waste has been piled up everywhere for everyone to see. Compared to electricity, water and gas, there is no price to be paid for waste disposed of, and this is said to be one of the factors influencing less emphasis on waste. It is also said that when arrangements are made to efficiently dispose of waste, we are influenced to put away garbage even more.
*Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, Senior Director, Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice, World Bank.
**MRA Consulting 2016, State of Waste 2016 – current and future Australian trends, at https://blog.mraconsulting.com.au/2016/04/20/state-of-waste-2016-current-and-future-australian-trends