Footprints in the Waste
The Polluter Pays Principle is one rib in an umbrella approach to solving Sri Lanka’s waste management problems.
Concrete measures are being taken to tackle waste problems.
Dismissed for decades as quack science, climate change is now a permanent fixture of the 24-hour news cycle around the world. This is thanks largely to the media hype surrounding the Paris Agreement on climate change adopted at the United Nations COP 21 conference in December last year. Consequently, the once fringe terms recycling and renewable energy have entered dinner table talk of many global households, especially those in developed countries. Meanwhile, signatory states scramble to stave off the worst effects
of climate change by keeping the rise in global temperatures to below two degrees Celsius.
Sri Lanka, too, has decided it needs to do more to reinforce this global initiative despite outputting a fraction of the carbon emitted by the worst offenders — the US, China and the EU. To this end, Sri Lanka’s cabinet of ministers on November 1, under the stewardship of President Maithripala Sirisena, passed a landmark proposal to enact the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP). The PPP is purposed to be one rib in an umbrella approach to solving the country’s spiraling waste management problems. Once operational, the PPP will penalize the importers and consumers of plastic and other nonbiodegradable materials by charging a levy proportional to their potential for pollution.
Although the moving parts of this proposal are unclear and a special committee to formulate recommendations will huddle together at some point, the application of the PPP in its current shape seems lopsided in favour of businesses. Consumers will have to pay a temporary deposit to the trader or producer at the time of buying non-biodegradable materials or containers, which will be reimbursed once they return the items. For electrical and electronic products with a longer shelf- life, the deposit will include an annual interest calculation. The government hopes the PPP will encourage citizens to dispose non-biodegradable waste properly via drop-offs at designated locations.
Central to the PPP — a programme widely practiced in the developed world — is the idea that citizens must pay the total cost of consumption, which includes the social and environmental costs. Otherwise, the lofty ideals of the Paris Agreement will remain a mere pipe-dream. With global landfills beginning to burst at the seams and their majority concentrated in developing countries, it is paramount that recycling becomes an intrinsic part of national cultures. It only takes a little research to uncover the havoc wreaked by non-biodegradable waste on the environment. Toxins released by such waste can leach into the soil and groundwater, poisoning both the land and food sources.
Moreover, there is no skirting around the fact that the solid waste management problem globally is snowballing to unmanageable levels. Government estimates suggest a whopping 60% of the plastic imported into Sri Lanka ends up being offloaded to the environment. Sri Lanka’s Central Environmental Authority also cites grim figures, claiming 5.2 million tonnes of metropolitan waste is being produced globally everyday, of which 3.8 million tonnes is attributable to developing countries. Some data models also calculate that global annual solid waste production will have inflated to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025, up from the 1.3 billion tonnes measured in 2012.
Environmental challenges plague Sri Lanka like many of its socioeconomic peers in the region and worldwide. The country’s Center for Environmental Justice identifies at least 58 derelict waste dump sites in the Western Province alone, most of which are packed to the brim. Burning garbage in the open is a common practice at such facilities which adds to the water and land pollution. Colombo itself has quadrupled its garbage output since the early 1990s, with dire implications for the surrounding wetlands and fauna. Soil erosion, degradation of the coastlines from excessive mining and the marked increase in air pollution in major cities from industrial emissions and motor vehicle exhaust are among the other pressing environmental concerns bedeviling Sri Lanka.
The PPP, however, is not without its critics. They contend the remit of this social costing programme is nebulous, as are the mechanisms for implementing it. Furthermore, the PPP is a tried and failed idea in Sri Lanka. It was originally unveiled in 2008 as the controversial Environmental Conservation levy bill that passed without a debate in parliament. To boot, MP Champika Ranawaka of the ruling United National Party ( UNP) was the Environment Minister then. As it turned out, the PPP failed to gain traction with the people and municipal authorities, rendering it political driftwood. Lack of information and lax implementation sunk the initiative, which makes critics wonder how the same faces will today engineer a turnaround in its fortunes.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of criticisms levelled at the PPP. Some argue that certain types of pollution are so bad for the environment they should be banned outright instead of subjecting them to social costing. Polluting rivers or protected forest habitats, for example, is so utterly reprehensible that letting the culprits off with a mere fine would be grossly negligent of the state. The government also needs to work harder to better implement the existing environmental laws, like the National Environmental Act of 1980, which often fall prey to political patronage.
Bureaucratic lethargy has not helped either. Sri Lanka currently has no national waste management policy. Rumour has it that the blueprint of such a policy has been floating
around the Environment Ministry since 1996, but the lack of specifics or indeed a schedule by which it should be put up for debate in parliament has dimmed expectations. Without a cohesive national strategy, many who collect material for recycling have been discouraged by the government, newspapers are being imported for use as wrapping paper and there is scant glass bottle collection in the country. Another piece of legislation, the Hazardous Waste Regulation, has also been in limbo since the 1990s.
This state of affairs conveniently excused the municipal authorities from performing their duties diligently while bemoaning the lack of funds. National budgets too have consistently ignored the need for sufficient resource allocation towards efficient garbage disposal systems. Ordinary citizens are also culpable in perpetuating this problem. Despite Sri Lanka’s oft-touted high literacy rates, few are aware of their social responsibilities regarding garbage disposal. And, as supermarkets and malls, glitzy icons of progress, continue to rise in urban centers, so does the national consumption of non-biodegradable plastic.
The more illustrious critic of the PPP — the executive director of the Center for Environmental Justice, Hemantha Withanage — finds the proposal indifferent to the socioeconomic realities in Sri Lanka. Withanage contends the PPP was flawed from the start because it did not differentiate between luxury emissions and survival emissions while disproportionately burdening the lowest rungs of society. He has urged Colombo to reorient the PPP towards focusing on the “big polluters and not the end-users.” Additionally, Withanage believes the government should lobby the international community to pressure the US, China and the EU into contributing more to the climate change adaptation fund commensurate with their carbon footprints.
There are, of course, solutions to Sri Lanka’s solid waste management problem and the PPP could play a key role in managing them if the government is willing to iron out the kinks by inviting detractors to contour a new, improved version. That said, a national waste management policy is imperative, as is the move towards Extended Producer Responsibility that charges a higher percentage of the social cost from producers or agents. Awareness campaigns to educate the general public on the perils of climate change and how the consumption of plastic catalyzes them will eventually produce a society that does not pollute and hence does not need to pay any fines.
History shows us that top-down government initiatives without broadbased support are doomed to fail and the PPP may be no different. What Sri Lanka needs right now is to rally together all the national stakeholders in a concerted action to save the environment. Implementing the PPP in its current shape at the expense of the disenfranchised poor simply to appear “business-friendly” is a recipe for disaster.
The application of the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) in its current shape seems lopsided in favour of businesses.