Foot­prints in the Waste

The Pol­luter Pays Prin­ci­ple is one rib in an um­brella ap­proach to solv­ing Sri Lanka’s waste man­age­ment prob­lems.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. Mubashir Noor

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.

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