An inexcusable tragedy

Daily News Editorial

The Meethotamulla garbage dump “landslide” was a disaster waiting to happen. Many experts had warned that there was a real possibility of the massive garbage dump giving way, with disastrous consequences for those living nearby. Their worst fears have now come true, with rescue personnel counting more than 19 bodies. This is one of the biggest peacetime tragedies in the country and the grim news hit headlines all over the world.

Unfortunately, this is one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the vicinity of Colombo that suffered the indignity of having to host Colombo’s daily collection of garbage. Politicians from all sides have spoken about this situation and the authorities have been trying for some time to find a solution. But it was too late, with many media and political commentators agreeing that the authorities did not work fast enough to find an alternative before tragedy struck. Even a fire that erupted in the dump last month failed to galvanise the authorities to take action. Nevertheless, Governmental and Security Forces personnel have to be commended for their swift response to the tragedy once it unfolded.

There are several aspects to this sad event. Some experts say the residents themselves are also partly responsible since most of the buildings around the dump are actually illegal. There are also allegations that some officials and politicians have turned this garbage dump into an income generator by renting trucks and tippers for transporting garbage to the dump.

But these factors gloss over the main issue – thousands of tonnes of garbage collected daily in the City of Colombo were dumped at this site against the wishes of Kolonnawa-Meethotamulla residents with successive Governments turning a blind eye. Since this practice continued unabated for a few years, the garbage dump actually resembled a man-made hill. It was an eyesore that also emanated an unbearable stench.

The real problem is that we still have not found a viable solution to the garbage issue, especially the disposal of solid waste. The Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) does have a separate Solid Waste Management (SWM) division but various problems seem to have curtailed its drive to find a better solution. SWM is the biggest issue faced not only by the CMC but also by local bodies in Kandy, Galle, Jaffna, Trincomalee and other key cities.

One of the biggest issues concerning SWM is the indiscriminate use of non-biodegradable plastics, including varieties of polythene and polystyrene. These substances take thousands of years to break down, if at all. While the Government has introduced regulations to crack down on their usage, the effectiveness of these rulings is yet to be confirmed. Further action is needed to reduce the use of polythene and related packaging materials. The impression we get is one of “all talk and no action” on this particular issue.

There are also doubts about the effectiveness of recent moves on garbage separation and recycling programmes. While many local bodies have instructed residents to package their waste separately as paper, kitchen waste, plastic etc., these are all collected together on the same day in most localities. Since the residents pack the garbage mostly in “sili sili” bags, they all look alike and there is no way for the workers to guess what it is inside. The result is that they are dumped together most of the time. This negates the aims of the garbage separation drive. One alternative is for the local bodies to provide colour-coded biodegradable bags for residents to pack their garbage. Yes, this will cost some money but the gains will justify this expense. This way, the workers will immediately know that plastic waste is inside a red bag, for instance.

Technology and rapid changes in our lifestyle are also partly to blame. A few decades ago, when one wanted to buy a soft drink, the old glass bottle had to be returned to buy a new one. This was recycling in action, when the word was not even in use. Similarly, loose goods such as sugar were wrapped in paper, which is degradable. Today, most soft drinks come in single use PET bottles and everything else is packaged in sili sili bags or other kinds of polythene. Lunch sheets alone contribute to the landfills in a big way. It is time for the authorities and citizens to focus more on the 3Rs – Reduce, Re-use and Recycle. This will take willpower and commitment, but it is essential that we do so.

But the problem of waste will not go away overnight. Landfills and even incinerators are now passé, and we must focus on new technologies that make better use of garbage. There are plenty of garbage-to-material and garbage- to-energy options. One of the latest is super plasma decomposition, which uses low-temperature plasma (ionized gas) to convert garbage into ceramic ash. One city in Washington State, USA, powers 12,500 homes by converting garbage into electricity. This is “clean energy” that also avoids the problems associated with fossil fuels. The terrible events at Meethotamulla must spur us on to eliminate garbage dumps and opt for viable alternatives.