Wednesday, July 10, 2013

An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 4

People say I'm extravagant because I want to be surrounded by beauty. But tell me, who wants to be surrounded by garbage? - Imelda Marcos 
You know you're going to be getting your stinky on when the subject matter for this installment of "An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly" is all about garbage (also known as refuse, rubbish or trash).

I've had this on my list of things to write about for quite some time.

In most of the places outside of Sri Lanka where I have resided there haven't been too many issues or stories that spring to mind. BUT, since living in Sri Lanka it's been "knee deep in smelly trash" to put it mildly!

Garbage collection is a bit hit-and-miss in Colombo and it is not necessarily consistent across Colombo. Coming from abroad I am used to regular weekly bin and recycling collections, as well as dates for bulk rubbish collections. I'm also used to the local council providing me with the appropriate recycling bins to separate out plastics, papers and glass.

When I first arrived in Colombo I was living in an area where households literally dumped their garbage in a pile by the side of the road, and you would count yourself lucky it wasn't directly in front of or beside your home. The garbage attracted stray animals, emitted smelly fumes and gave the street a distinctly unhygienic and untidy appearance. At the time, I recall some of my neighbors informing me it was the only way garbage could be managed as collections were not being regularly made from people's houses.
It reminds me of my stint living in a small city in Malaysia a number of years ago. Back in those days garbage was dumped by the roadside and collected sporadically by the local council. It took years before this practice was transformed and the general population was trained to adopt a different approach to their general waste.

Overall, garbage collection has improved over the past five years from where it was. In some wards, municipal councils have awarded contracts to private companies to provide garbage collection services and the remaining zones continue to be carried out by the municipal council. I couldn't ascertain details on the tender process, how the contracts were eventually awarded and what KPIs (if any) were used to measure performance. As a general observation, I think the use of private contracts ensures a minimum level of service, whereas the council's own service lacks a certain oomph and regularity. Mmmm...

Naturally there are pluses and minuses attributed to the current garbage collection around Colombo:
  • on the plus side: generally garbage is no longer piled roadside but hung from people's gates or walls; increased collection (every few days) ; improved street appearance; more hygienic
  • on minus side: no garbage bins (stray animals attack the garbage seeking food remains); irregular collection (sometimes it can go up to a week uncollected); garbage is occasionally piled roadside; unhygienic and untidy appearance when garbage goes uncollected
When the garbage is regularly collected every few days (or sometimes up to twice daily) it is wonderful. But this year I've noted it has lapsed again with collections sporadically occurring. As a result, I've had numerous attacks by stray cats and dogs in search of food, which often leads to a nasty surprise in front of my home in the morning - the bags have been torn apart and garbage is strewn everywhere! And then there is the odor - as the days increase the smell of rotting food (especially seafood) becomes more foul and putrid. This can attract some unwelcome guests, such as rats and cockroaches. Ewwww!

Just before departing on my recent travels, my garbage had not been collected for five days! This seems to have become more of a regular occurrence since Wesak. Sometimes I wonder if the "don't care" mentality has invaded garbage collection services. I'd heard Environmental Police had been introduced as a means to try to ensure the proper management and supervision of the garbage collection process around Colombo. I couldn't say with any certainty if this has had a positive or negative effect.

This recent lapse could very well be due to recent changes by the Colombo Municipal Council ("CMC") at the beginning of June 2013 introducing their new waste management system that will collect solid waste and recycling as sorted and unsorted. The ridiculous thing is that I haven't seen much information on this new scheme and what it practically means. There were some press articles at the end of May discussing its June 2013 launch. And there may have been something broadcast on TV during the news bulletins, but I didn't happen to catch any of those segments. Interestingly, I couldn't find anything on the CMC website that provided any meaningful information on these changes.  If indeed the recent lapses are due to these changes, I'd have to say it's not helping the garbage collection issue.


In one article, the Colombo Mayor A. M. Muzammil indicated if residents of Colombo failed to follow the new waste management procedures their waste would not be collected by the CMC workers. According to the figures collected by the CMC, an estimated 700 tonnes of garbage is collected daily in the Colombo city and the CMC spends about Rs 1.5 billion on garbage collection. The Colombo Mayor was quoted as saying "The public should support the CMC to keep Colombo free from garbage." Well, for all intents and purposes, this is clearly easier said than done.

Admittedly, a certain level of investment is needed to take waste management in Colombo to the next level. This includes the necessary infrastructure, assets, implementation and other.

One of the primary reasons behind the new waste management system is to promote recycling, but there probably needs to be more education around what this actually means. I know the older generation naturally recycles in the sense they are conditioned not to waste anything. Most household items will be re-used till they can no longer be used in one form or another. Plus, there is also a tendency to do regular burn-offs of leaves and other items in the garden rather than turning them into compost. Although this is one method to reduce the amount of garbage, it does contribute to the overall pollution of the environment and wastes a valuable source of nutrients for your garden.

At my place I have a compost bin in my garden. Whenever my gardener comes to cut the grass, trim the hedges and tidy up the general area, all the cuttings, leaves etc. go into my compost bin. Additionally, I collect vegetable peel, fruit skins, egg shells and other uncooked items (i.e. whatever can be composted) and deposit it in my compost bin daily. All the information you need to learn to compost is on the internet. I have started to observe some households starting to compost, but unfortunately, the majority don't compost or don't know how to compost, and they tend to throw away and/or burn.

I am also pro-recycling, at home, work and also when out-and-about. In our modern era, we face an ever-increasing amount of plastic, paper, cardboard and all the associated packaging that now comes with the products we purchase at the supermarket or from various other stores. All you need to do is go for a walk along the beach, for example Mount Lavinia Beach, to notice the abundance of plastic items, caps, glass bottles, packaging, random clothing items and other waste that comes from modern living. These items cannot be broken down in the ocean, but keep washing back onto the shore.

Note there are other municipal councils within the Western Province, which include the city of Colombo and its suburbs and Negombo, Kalutara and Gampaha areas. Please bear in mind there may be different collection services and rules and regulations that apply in these areas that differ from what I mentioned for the CMC.

Courtesy of googlemaps

Ultimately, the larger question is where does all of our garbage eventually end up... i.e. the issue of landfills, waste dumping grounds and recycling facilities. I read somewhere there are an estimated 58 unmanaged open waste dumps in the Western Province, most of which are almost filled to capacity. Solid and hazardous waste is unloaded into these unmanaged open waste dumps and burnt in the open air causing serious health hazards, as well as land and water pollution. 

In some of the run-down areas of Colombo you can observe poor sanitary conditions caused by poorly designed waste areas, garbage which is dumped nearby or not placed in proper waste bins. Many drains in these areas are blocked with garbage adding to the health problems.

Obviously there are further issues here, beyond mere garbage collection, that could be debated with far-reaching implications with respect to the environment, wildlife, and also public health and safety. 

I wonder how "joined up" the waste management strategy is at a local, provincial and national level in Sri Lanka. In this blog I've only lightly touched on basic household waste, but there is also business, light industrial, major industrial, government and other to consider.


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For more installments of "An expat in Sri Lanka: The Good, Bad and Ugly", click on the following posts below:

An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 5
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 6
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 7 

And my expat page also has more posts on an expat's view of the life in Sri Lanka too!


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