Despite a number of concerns, ( check out my earlier blog for details ) the proposed development of a sanitary landfill site at Aruwakkalu close to Puttalam up on the west coast is going ahead and Colombo will have a short term solution at least to its garbage problem. The site at Aruwakkalu ( a disused limestone quarry) will cover 45 acres to begin with but could be could be expanded further if need arose. The question is; will this be enough?
the landfill site at Aruwakkalu now
and in its finished state (images; http://www.sundayobserver.lk)
The idea initially is for two trains to run daily from the collecting station at Kelaniya north of Colombo city to Aruwakkalu. Each train will transport 1,200 metric tons of compressed blocks of solid waste in 13 rail wagons and 26 sealed containers. Eventually the processed garbage will be carried by road. The image below gives some detail of the route.
So how does this landfill work?
It’s basically a large hole in the ground which is sealed with an impermeable bottom liner to prevent leaching and pollution of groundwater.
Waste is deposited in thin layers and compacted by heavy machinery. to form a refuse cell about 3 metres thick. At the end of each day the refuse cell is covered with a layer of compacted soil to prevent odours and windblown debris. When the landfill is completed, it is capped with a layer of clay or a synthetic liner in order to prevent water from entering. A final topsoil cover is placed, compacted, and graded, and various forms of vegetation may be planted in order to reclaim the land.
There are problems to be overcome.
- methane from the decomposing garbage needs to be burned off although it can be used to generate electricity.
- pollutant liquids ( leachates ) have to be drained off and removed to avoid polluting the soil.
The need for a sustainable solution
All living things produce waste and in order to survive they have to remove that waste. The same is true for cities. If they cannot, then eventually city life becomes unsustainable. Signs of stress emerge; garbage in the streets, garbage clogging drainage channels and canals, foul smelling air, the spread of insect borne and water borne diseases like dengue, and negative impacts on health.
Hazards from open dumps
Open dumping results in a range of environmental hazards especially because:
- a large % of the waste is organic which creates highly acidic and toxic leachates in the soil
- high rainfall, humidity and high temperatures accelerate breakdown of organic material
- Dumps are breeding frounds for mosquitos. It is no coincidence that the number of dengue cases is much higher in urban areas such as Colombo. (You can find more on dengue in various other blogs on this site).
- Leaching from the dumps pollutes groundwater. The National Water Supply and Drainage Board has found that the ground water aquifers in the greater Colombo area are polluted, primarily because of open dumping of solid waste, and thus unsuitable for use as a source of drinking water supply.
- Open solid waste dumps also are a primary source of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, leading to air pollution
- In Sri Lanka, high levels of odour, dust and toxic fumes have been found emanating from uncontrolled burning of solid waste (Asian Institute of Technology, 2004).
- Haphazard dumping also results in the loss of wetland habitats, which impacts on fauna and flora (particularly in Attidiya and Muthurajawela areas),
- Another serious issue relates to hazardous, electronic and other industrial waste and this includes oil and waste water management since very few facilities are available to recycle such waste in Sri Lanka.
- Large unstructured dumps are unstable and prone to collapse; see my blog on the Meethotamulla disaster
For countries in the developing world hoping to get a slice of the development action cities choked by garbage are not attractive places to be. Which multi-nationals would want to locate new offices and personnel to glorified rubbish dumps and open sewers.?
And that is what Colombo is becoming. Harsh you think? Take a look at a typical street scene in the city. Garbage is just dumped almost anywhere and left; no-one’s responsibility. Everyone does it, not just the poor, although the wealthy are careful not to fly tip in their neighbourhoods preferring low income areas as dumping grounds.
What you see above is random dumping of garbage in the street. But there is garbage dumping on a much greater scale, for example the temporary tip at Keradeniya ( below). Much of it goes unregulated.
Even fragile wetlands such as the Attidiya bird sanctuary haven’t escaped environmental abuse. You have to ask; what are the politicians thinking?
So how has the garbage situation got to this point?
It is estimated that Colombo generates around 8,500 tons of garbage per day but only 25% is collected. The collected waste finds its way on to open dumps. The rest finds its way onto the streets.
The question is why? As always there is more than one explanation. Here are the main issues.
- Population Growth: In the last 50 years the population of Colombo has more than doubled and with that the population density has risen from 138 persons per hectare to 268p/ha. Increasing population inevitably means increased amounts of garbage.
- Poor governance at both national and municipal level. Until very recently there has been no direction from national government. There has been very little regulation of municipal authorities, a lack of strategic planning and no control of private contractors given contracts for garbage collection and disposal. In other words a free for all with waste management apparently a very low priority for the government. A major problem is that local authorities are not held to account by government, either for the manner of waste disposal or for the fact that they fail to service all households who are left with little alternative but to roadside dump.
- Insufficient funding for personnel, vehicles and garbage processing
- The spread of low-income settlements in urban areas, which go largely unserviced and don’t have access to regular garbage collection
- Market forces that introduce cheap and unsustainable products, including Increased consumption of plastic packaging. Inevitably, with the rise of the supermarket chains, one use plastic bags, and the increased use of polythene or plastic for wrapping food, there is more waste to dispose of.
- Lack of environmental health and safety practices among waste collectors
- Old technology, and limited land for waste disposal.
But there is also another factor; Sri Lanka has a litter culture. Littering is commonplace. Almost everywhere you will see people adding to existing piles or starting new ones; just like this guy.
Littering appears to be acceptable in the public consciousness. Simply put; anti litter laws are not enforced if they exist at all, littering goes unpunished. Nobody cares.
Open Waste dumping is ingrained into Sri Lankan society as a result of:
- Inadequate municipal collection and disposal
- Apathy on the part of the public
- The fact that Sri Lankans don’t really see dumping garbage as a problem, and there seems to be no motivation to be different; to recycle, or to compost.
Attitudes both political and public need to change
So what are the fixes?
Many argue that landfill is a short term fix not least because of the problems of identifying other potential sites and the resultant public outcry that would ensue in areas targeted for landfill.. Aruwakkalu will eventually fill up. More sites will be needed but given the difficulties the government have experienced finding its first large scale site, can we be sure there will be other sites coming on stream?
1. The need to re-focus
The recent partial collapse of the open dump at Meethotamulla which caused more than 30 deaths and damaged or destroyed many low income houses was a wake up call for age government and had the effect of creating a call for a national integrated waste management plan under the control of a government minister. We have to wait to see whether this materialises. However, leaving under-funded municipal authorities to their own devices hasn’t worked.
2. New approaches
Developing sanitary landfill sites is a step forward and will make a difference but it cannot be the only solution not least because of the expense involved given that the Sri Lankan government is cash-strapped.
Many argue that composting offers an additional way forward given that a large % of waste is organic. The question is; how do you make this happen?
Supporters argue that community participation should be at the core of a drive to more composting a move that could lead to a number of benefits. Proponents argue that community based composting projects :
- are cost effective
- cheaper and therefore not constrained by limited municipal budgets
- reduce the amount of solid waste
- build environmental awareness within the community
- would encourage segregation and recycling of waste
- generate strategies for waste management tailored to local community skills and perceptions
- build local community involvement through engagement, and developing skills.
- add an income source for the local community with the sale of recycled materials and compost.
One such example are Community Based Solid Waste Management Projects in Matale and Ratnapura Cities (Integrated resource Recovery Centre Project-IRRC) projects supervised by the Colombo based N.G.O. Sevanatha
‘In Matale, the SEVANATHA with its subsidiary company called Micro Enrich Compost (Pvt) Limited is currently managing the IRRC project. This project has conducted extensive community awareness to motivate the people in residential and non- residential areas to separate waste at source and hand over it to the collectors of the IRRC. In Matale city, the IRRC is handling around seven (07) tons of organic waste at present and working towards achieving nine (09) tons per day capacity soon. It also collects all the recyclable materials and further segregates them for selling at the local market.
Considering the success of IRRC project in Matale, the UN-ESCAP has provided the funding and technical support replicate this model in Ratnapura Municipal area where the city council has provided required support for the project. Accordingly, five (05) tons per day capacity IRR Centre was built at Kanadola in Ratnapura town. This centre was opened in January 2014 and currently running its operation as in Matale. SEVANATHA through its MEC (Pvt) Ltd manages this project in Ratnapura in partnership with the Municipal Council of Rathnapura.” (reprinted from the Sevanatha website)
The situation in Colombo is dire, and seems to be getting worse. The previous government was successful at keeping the streets clean but at the expense of creating the massive open dump at Meethotamulla. The new landfill site will go some way to getting the existing situation under control but on its own it will not be enough. Even if new landfill sites are found it is hard to see them providing a sustainable solution on their own. There is a crying need for recycling projects and composting projects to add to the mix.
Educating politicians to take the garbage problem seriously has proven difficult in the past. Educating the public to take better care of the city environment has also proven difficult. However, the current government have ambitious plans for economic development in the coming years.This means attracting foreign direct investment, but in order to be attractive Colombo has to present a greener less polluted face to the world.
Garbage collection and disposal cannot be left to private companies and individuals. it is the state’s responsibility. What is needed then is the appointment of a minister with overall control of garbage collection, street cleaning and the urban environment, with Municipal councils answerable to the ministry; with clear guidelines laid down for all councils to follow and investment in modern equipment, vehicles and personnel to back it up.
The government have recently banned single use plastic bags; big deal! What they need to do is actively prosecute fly tippers and enforce the laws against dumping that exist. Education in the schools is the next step. if the current generational deaf to the threat of a garbage contaminated society then maybe it is up to the younger generation to take the lead.