Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sri Lanka: Pint-sized Plastic Garbage Island?

Image source: CNN
An article was published late last year on the Midway Atoll in the North Pacific. It highlighted the devastation of plastic pollution on this tiny island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The video imagery that went with the article showed evidence of the direct impact of plastic pollution on the island's natural environment, inhabitants, sea life and the harm caused to food sources. The article went on to highlight Sri Lanka as one of the five worst polluters when it comes to plastic pollution around the globe, based on a study published in Science Magazine looking at mismanaged plastic waste from land into the ocean. The other countries were China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. It projected that Sri Lanka would still be in the top ten of plastic polluters around the globe by 2025.

After reading the CNN article, I also watched a full-length documentary on Midway Atoll titled "Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch". In terms of shock value, it hit me right in the guts when I saw the impact of plastic and waste on sea life, bird life, other wildlife and also human lives. It has serious consequences on our food systems, ecology and health.

As an expat living in Sri Lanka reading that the island made the top five worst polluters list didn't really come as a surprise. Why not? Well sadly, the evidence is right in front of us. A visit to to the closest beach provides all the evidence you need. You can even  go a step further and look at the current issues across the island regarding inadequate and ineffective waste management (the devastating garbage dump collapse at Meethatomulla is a recent example); illegal dumping; and the public's propensity towards plastic consumption (from plastic bags, bottles, caps, containers, wrapping and more), which provide further evidence of the serious nature of this problem.

Sri Lanka is literally drowning in its own waste as the garbage problems spiral out of control and the pollution of the environment (both land and sea) is par for the course.

According to Sri Lanka's Central Environment Agency ("CEA"), the island annually imports 200,000 metric tons of raw plastic materials - around 70% is for daily use while only 30% is for exports. Alarmingly, the CEA fully expects future growth in the demand for plastics in Sri Lanka based on key indicators.

In an article published last year, it was reported that "Western Province generates around 3500metric tons (MT) of solid waste a day of which only 2400 MT is collected. Of this, approximately 15 per cent is turned into compost, 10 per cent recycled and 75 per cent thrown into open dumps". The garbage problems are further compounded by natural disasters such as floods and landslides. If you've been tracking the cyclical nature of droughts, floods, and landslides in Sri Lanka over the past five to six years, then you'll know the island has been experiencing what seems like an annual cycle of environmental devastation with very major flow-on effects.

There have also been plenty of articles published in Sri Lanka and abroad by wildlife enthusiasts, photographers, government departments and environmentalists about environmental concerns and the growing issues facing our natural habitat.

A few examples include "When plastic stops being plastic"; "Sea birds' taste for plastic traced to compound smell they associate with food"; "Stench from Beira Lake remains as allegations of pollution keep flowing"; "Sri Lanka in fifth place for dumping plastic into the sea"; "Top 20 states contributing to the oceans' plastic waste";"Lament for littered lake"; "Sri Lanka: The pint-sized global polluter of the ocean"; Drowning in waste: Garbage problems out of control

Unfortunately, it doesn't paint a very favorable picture at all.

Food Systems At Risk

If I was to ask if you wanted to eat plastic for lunch, what would your answer be? Of course your answer would be an emphatic no. I mean it's toxic, right?

Well, what about if I offered you fresh fish caught off the Sri Lankan coast for lunch instead? You might say, yes please.

But, what if I told you that plastic pollution in the ocean is contaminating our seafood? It would make you think again, wouldn't it?

There has been much research undertaken in recent years to test seafood for toxic chemicals. The article above highlights a study by scientists to investigate the role of plastics in transferring these chemicals into the food chain:
"For many years, scientists have known that chemicals will move up the food chain as predators absorb the chemicals consumed by their prey. That's why the biggest, fattiest fish, like tuna and swordfish, tend to have the highest levels of mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other dioxins.... Plastics — when they end up in the ocean — are a sponge for chemicals already out there. We found that when the plastic interacts with the juices in the [fish's] stomach, the chemicals come off of plastic and are transferred into the bloodstream or tissue. The fish on the marine plastic diet were also more likely to have tumors and liver problems."

This is like watching a horror movie play out, but ignoring that it's really happening to you. It makes me wonder about all these modern illnesses and whether we're just ticking time bombs based on our destructive polluter habits and ignorance towards the impact on our food systems. Scary stuff!

If you search the internet for "fish eating plastic" you get a ton of articles and research findings such as Young Fish Now Prefers Eating Plastic Over Real Food, Study Finds; or  Fish eat plastic like teens eat fast food, researchers say; or Plankton are eating PLASTIC: Feasting on ocean litter could devastate marine ecosystems, scientists warn.

Interestingly, there hasn't been much, if anything, written about fish eating plastic in Sri Lanka. The closest has been an article in the Sunday Leader titled "Sri Lanka In Fifth Place For Dumping Plastic In To The Sea" which mentioned that when we pollute the sea with plastics, "toxins can even enter food chain through fish or other sea organisms, which in turn, can poison humans."

However, there has been research undertaken in Sri Lanka to test for toxic chemicals in marine fish in Sri Lanka. One such study, "Mercury, Cadmium and Lead Levels in Three Commercially Important Marine Fish Species of in Sri Lanka" found levels of trace metals in the samples of fish species tested, with higher levels of mercury in the sample of swordfish tested. Would you want to take the risk of consuming toxic chemicals on a daily basis?

Positive Changes

In the past year there have been four significant and positive changes that have occurred.

The first was a strict ban on the use of plastic and polythene shopping bags inside national parks and wildlife sanctuaries on instruction by the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera. It's hard to say whether this is actually being enforced. I'd really like this to be taken much further so that it applies throughout the forested areas of Sri Lanka, even the ones that haven't been marked as national park, wildlife sanctuary or strict forest reserve. There's been too many occasions where I've gone for a hike and come across a heap of plastic garbage (such as plastic bottles, packaging and lunch sheets) that has been deliberately left behind.

The second has been the implementation of nationwide garbage segregation from November 2016. Although the implementation process has been challenging owing to inadequate information on biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste, lack of training of garbage collectors and the ongoing issue regarding timely garbage collections, it is still a positive and long-awaited move.

The third was Sri Lanka's Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development prohibition of plastic water bottles of every size being carried on board fishing vessels from December 2016. This was put into effect after data indicated that nearly five tons of plastic water bottles were being disposed into the sea by daily fishing vessels.

It's a step in the right direction, though the challenge will definitely be on education and enforcement. I've spent some time around fishing communities and I often see fishermen fill up large plastic bottles with water for use when hauling their boats in from the sea. Unfortunately, once they've hauled their boat up to shore, they simply discard the flattened bottle on the beach. The result is an accumulation of flattened plastic bottles littering the beach as well as many being washed out to sea.

The fourth was the CEA's very recent announcement of a ban on the sale of carbonated drinks and fruit juices in PolyEthylene Tetraphthalate (PET) bottles below one liter.
"CEA Waste Management Director, J.M.U. Indraratne said that, instead, the Beverage industry will be encouraged to sell drinks in glass bottles. However, the industry could use PET bottles of 1 litre or more, for their beverages. Water will be exempted from the law."
The CEA also plans to ban the import of recycled raw material and the sale of lunch sheets below 40 microns in the local market. Understandably, there is a major tug-of-war between the CEA and the plastic manufacturing and packaging industry with industry pushing back on government moves to ban the import, manufacture and sale of certain plastic items from the island.

Where To From Here?

If you've been reading this blog, you'll have noted my suggestions in other blog posts about:
  • undertaking more education programs across the island to increase awareness of the environmental concerns regarding plastics (for example, fishing communities who often dump waste directly into the sea, or local communities that regularly litter) and, 
  • for the government to consider implementing a plastic tax as a means to change business and consumer behavior. When people and businesses are required to pay a plastic tax, they are essentially incentivized to utilize existing alternatives or find better alternatives to plastic and this makes change a real possibility.

Other alternatives would be to legislate more bans on plastic manufacturing and usage with a resolve to promote the use of less harmful products, and to promote recycling as much as possible. However, it has to be said, only a limited number of plastics can be recycled. Some more easily than others within the recycling system (i.e. PETE or HDPE), but many plastics fall into the difficult to recycle category and this is a huge problem. Additionally, petroleum-based plastics like PET don't decompose the same way organic material does, so basically it is very hard for plastics to biodegrade (up to 1000 years in most cases). Another possibility, is to instigate mandatory composting of food waste at home or for collection. From my own experience, I have cut down my weekly trash output significantly after I started a food waste compost and green waste compost in my garden. The bonus, is that the compost helps to feed the my fruit trees and herb and vegetable garden.

My question is, why are we still manufacturing plastics that are difficult or cannot be recycled? Aren't we just clogging up the planet with stuff that can't be broken down or that will take beyond our lifetime with massive consequences for future generations?

Another idea, from a recent UK article, was the proposal to provide free drinking water. The article highlighted cafes and restaurants being forced to offer free drinking water in an effort to cut plastic pollution i.e. bottled water. Sri Lanka has opportunity to seriously look into this type of solution and potentially reverse the bottled water trend. According to a Keep Britain Tidy report, "each one-lite plastic bottle takes seven liters of water to make and produces the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as an oil-powered car driving a kilometer".

If you reflect on the more traditional way of life in Sri Lanka, there are still some very useful things to consider. Take the local kade or pola - you will still find shopkeepers and sellers using newspaper to wrap up small purchases of grains, chillies and shallots. Or they will sell oil to consumers by re-filling old bottles as a natural way of recycling. And soft drinks can still be purchased in glass bottles rather than plastic, so why not choose glass?

Although environmentalists have been campaigning with respect to national parks, forests, wildlife sanctuaries and our waterways and oceans, the results have been lukewarm at best. And while there are local groups and NGOs that have been organizing regular clean up programs in key areas, such as beaches and other natural habitats, these barely scratch the surface at addressing the issue as a whole.

I suspect that it will take fatalities (particularly human, but also wildlife fatalities) or a significant negative impact on the tourism or fishing industries as a catalyst for the Sri Lankan government to  really take this environmental issue seriously.

The latest disaster at Meethotamulla has claimed at least 27 human lives and counting as well as displacing many families. How many more lives need to be lost before the Sri Lankan government addresses the waste management and plastic consumption issues?

Already, there has been mounting pressure with the rise of dengue incidents in Sri Lanka. It has forced the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health and provincial councils to take steps (even ones that don't adequately address the actual dengue problem) to be seen to combat the problem. The impact (i.e. potential  losses) on the tourism industry is seen as unacceptable. This is in spite of dengue being an ongoing issue for many years.

I can see the same thing happening with regard to plastic pollution, though it will probably be a good thing if it forces the Sri Lankan government to properly address this issue.

Tourists flock to Sri Lanka to see the wildlife, enjoy the beaches and sample the fresh seafood:

Sri Lanka provides seafood to the local market, as well as being the second largest exporter of swordfish and tuna to the EU.  Sri Lanka was banned in 2012 from exporting fish to the EU due illegal fishing, but it was lifted in 2015.

As I mentioned earlier, there has already been research undertaken in Sri Lanka to test for toxic chemicals in marine fish in Sri Lanka and it found levels of trace metals in the samples of fish species tested, with higher levels of mercury in the sample of swordfish tested. This should ring alarm bells for the local fishing industry. The consequences of plastic found in local seafood would have dire consequences for the local fishing industry, but far worse for consumers.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will already know that I have a great love for Sri Lanka and call it my home. In writing this particular post, I am deeply saddened at the current situation with regard to plastics, pollution, waste management, our environment and the risks to the wellbeing of all inhabitants on the island (and the rest of the world - because we don't live in a vacuum)

I believe that it is going to take strong government leadership, partnerships with industry and communities, and an island-wide shared commitment to protect our environment and all that depend on it. There are no longer any other options...


Anonymous said...

Srilankan Beaches are filled with Plastic and it is shocking compared to a few years ago. People are less educated about the downside of plastic. Good idea to introduce Plastic Tax as they desperately need the money to pay the international loans.

Anonymous said...

It used to be the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Plastic Garbage Island of the world sadly sounds true.

People obviously have no idea of the toxicity of the Plastic use. More tourist should comment about this. This is the only way the Srilankan leaders would listen as they are heavily dependent on tourist arrivals.

Eva Stone said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for the comment. I agree that it has gotten worse at some of the popular beaches around Sri Lanka with regard to plastic pollution and general litter. I'm glad to hear you think a plastic tax would be a good idea.
Best wishes

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