Garbage Dump Collapse; Will this end continuing political apathy?

Meethotamulla Garbage Dump Collapse which sadly happened when the nation was celebrating the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, was not just a disaster for the people of the area , but one where the stench was felt far beyond its’ boundaries. For, it was yet another disaster which could have been avoided if the successive governments have seriously given an ear to the anguish and agony of those who have been continuously suffering in these hazardous environs. They say  only a sleeping man can be awakened; not one who feigns sleep. Thus, in the context of this garbage dump issue having become a political ‘beggar’s wound’  for a very long time, it is therefore not surprising that no viable long term solution was sought.

Yes! Meethotamulla Garbage mountain collapsed causing many unfortunate deaths including children ,destroying a large number of houses and injuring hundreds.  Still many remain  buried under the garbage mountain. As usual during times of these types of national disasters, President instructed the three forces, Police and the Disaster Management Ministry to provide immediate relief to those who were affected due to the tragic incident. In a laudable gesture, people of all walks of life irrespective of racial or religious differences are flocking together to help their brethren in distress. In months ahead , this contentious issue will perhaps be forgotten until another disaster strikes once again to kick start the slow moving government and political machinery to take reactive measures. Therefore , it is imperative that people this time , blow their sirens right in the ear chamber of the political powers that be ,to keep them awake and make them take some positive action to bring about a long term solution for  the  suffering people of this area.

Listening to the Press interview of Nuwan Bopage, Organizer, Movement against the Garbage Dump at Kolonnawa, it is much clear how the politicians and officials have been playing games with people’s lives and turned this issue into a ‘political football’.  Since 2011, they have launched more than 15 agitations and both MR Regime and also the Sirisena-Ranil so-called Yahapalana coalition have only responded with repressive measures to silence the voice of the people instead of listening to their just grievances. He emotionally related  how the Police and Armed forces which then used force against them have now come to look out for bodies inside the rubbish. He accused the corrupt politicians- parliamentarians of the area and both CMC and Kolonnawa Council of using this garbage dump as means of  earning (blood stained) money. None of the recent promises given by Ranil W. to bring an acceptable solution have been kept. He accused the politicians in both past and present regimes as having committed ‘mass’ murder and asked that they all be held to account for their inaction.  

It was disgusting that ,according to Bopage, CMC has earned around Rs. 200M out of the garbage tender while many politicos have been earning filthy money out of the contracts associated with bringing garbage into this dump and collecting recyclables. No wonder therefore there is virtually no interest at all in solving this stinking issue while the people are compelled to bear the health hazards associated with living at the doorstep of a massive garbage dump.  This is not a natural disaster but a man made one and therefore when the garbage mountain fell, along with it fell the confidence people had, in the will of the political hierarchy and bureaucracy to solve this problem.    

In this context, will these politicos take these concerns seriously and take viable action even at this stage? OR Will the responsible politicos accept responsibility for this sad debacle and resign as done by the politicos and officials in other ‘civilized’ countries? Knowing our political gentry , none of this will happen. They will once again sing lullabies and put these issues to rest.  Who said that a representative democracy is  “a government of the people, by the people, for the people’?. It is therefore high-time that this issue be not allowed to be swept under the carpet and demand effective waste management  systems are explored and brought into practice not just in Meethotamulla, but in other parts of the country as well.   

We are aware that landfills have led to some of the most heated, acrimonious battles over pollution in the public commons that have ever been seen. While there are a number of reasons for the vehement arguments that often surround landfills, one of the largest is the juxtaposition of both the understood need for landfills and the lack of will to live near one. With the population skyrocketing across the country particularly in the suburbs of the capital city, , these landfills will only become more and more of an acute public issue as time goes on. Despite the arguments over landfills in general, there are no arguments over the assertion that there are many things that contribute to the environmental problem of landfills. Those living in the capital city should realize that they are also in small ways responsible for the disaster which happened in Meethotamulla due to the haphazard ways in which they produce and dispose waste.   

The environmental problems caused by landfills are numerous. In addition to threats to groundwater, landfills give off potentially harmful gases, and odours will often permeate the neighbourhoods. Some studies show that birth defects increase in communities surrounding landfills. Landfills are often classified by the type of waste they can accept: Municipal waste, medical waste, special waste, or hazardous waste landfills are four common types. Because even our household waste contains toxic chemicals, it is not significantly safer to live near a municipal or special waste landfill than one that accepts more toxic waste.

The Solution to our Waste Problems: Move Towards Zero Waste

The solution to waste rests in reducing the volume and the toxicity of our garbage.  Zero Waste aims for the elimination of, rather than simply the “management” of, waste.   “Waste” is something cast off with little to no value – but many items individuals throw away have value to other people, businesses, and communities. For instance, organic “waste” is the feedstock of a commercial composting operation, which turns food, leaves, brush, and manure into compost to feed the soil at farms and residential and business landscaping projects. 

Zero Waste is not any single technology, program, or policy.  Zero Waste is a goal, a process, and a vision that shifts how we think about and use resources: it is a whole-system approach that targets a major change in the way materials flow through our economy.  It is the opposite of an end-of-pipe solution.   Instead, Zero Waste is a bold approach to waste management that looks at both the both the front end (production and design) and the back end (reuse and reprocessing) of material flow, and solutions to connect the two.  Zero Waste centers around reducing needless consumption, minimizing waste, maximizing recycling, and incentivizing the manufacturing of products that can be intentionally reused, repaired, or recycled back into the marketplace. 

Waste disposal experts have provided us many pointers in this regard. Practically, common Zero Waste models include many of the following initiatives:

  • Devote resources on the state level to recycling & reuse programs, and increasing recycling incentives for companies and consumers alike. 
  • Ensure that recycling facilities are widely available and mandate recycling programs where possible (especially for institutions, businesses, etc.)
  • Create a market for recycled materials. Jobs are created for sorting materials and creating goods to re-enter the economy.
  • Require companies to produce products with minimum packaging, and phase out toxic ingredients in favour of safer alternatives.
  • Mandate manufacturer take-back provisions, to reuse components in new products.  Companies should be responsible for their waste.
  • Reduce the number of landfills and incinerators, restrict expansions, and strengthen the environmental review, compliance and ongoing monitoring at these facilities.  Strict, well- funded enforcement is absolutely necessary.
  • Dissolve corporate waste industry, eliminating the economic incentives for disposing of waste in an environmentally destructive way. 
  • Put in place safety provisions for workers at solid waste management facilities.
  • Make the waste regulations more citizen friendly and shift the burden of proof to companies. 
  • Provide increased citizen participation in solid waste management permitting and policy.
  • Encourage people to recycle and give effective tips in how to reduce and dispose waste  
  • Include these imperatives in school curricula to enable young people to get involved in good habits and practices in disposing waste and saving the environment.

Everyone wants to live and visit places that are clean, fresh and healthy. A city with poor sanitation, smelly and with waste matter all over the place do not attract good people, investors and tourists. Such cities tend to have poor living standards. Cities that do not invest in recycling and proper waste control miss out on revenue from recycling. They also miss out on job opportunities that come from recycling, composting and businesses that work with them. Thus, there is also economic sense too apart from the oft-quoted  ‘health’ rationale for the government to invest and implement a viable waste management system . Apart from that there are three slogans to address this issue; reduce, reuse and recycle. In this way garbage pollution issue could be solved with simply community efforts.

-Lukman Harees

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