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Waste and affluence: More money, more garbage

By Karin Fernando Senior Research Professional, CEPA
The catastrophe that was Meethotamulla in mid-April during what should have been a joyous time of anticipating a New Year was a stark warning of a serious man-made disaster that can recur, not just in Kolonnawa but in other areas as well.

Smaller dumps due to indiscriminate dumping can be seen rising up in various parts of the country while “sili sili” bags hanging off thorny bushes, glistening silver wrappers amongst the water lilies, multi coloured plastic pieces scattered on the beaches are becoming part of our natural scenery. We are caught in a paradox of a more affluent country drowning in garbage.

Solid waste and affluence have a positive co-relationship. Studies show that as societies become wealthier, they generate more food waste (organic) as well as more non-organic items such as paper and plastic packaging, electronic waste etc. The less affluent are much better recyclers – out of necessity. Thus, more disposable income results in more “disposable”  products.

A World Bank study aptly titled “What a waste” claims that not just affluence but urban living also leads to more solid waste. The report estimates that by 2025, 4.3 billion urban residents will generate about 1.42 kg of solid waste per capita per day. Solid waste management is one of the largest recurring costs for municipal and urban authorities and the cost is said to see a four-fold (or more) increase in lower-middle income countries in the next decade. Although this study, conducted in 2012, says that South Asia is one of the regions generating the least waste, this trend will change, with projected increase in urbanisation and incomes. So how will we manage our waste?

Solid waste management is a pressing environmental problem. It is assumed that the prime responsibility of waste management rests squarely on the authorities that are supposed to manage waste. After all, as residents, we pay taxes and it is the job of the local authority to have systems in place and planned  living  spaces with adequate attention to waste disposal. While it is of utmost importance that waste management systems are in place, does it not also warrant some sort of action from us, the ones generating the garbage?  

Our current growth model is run on consumption, and wellbeing is heavily reliant on material things. We do not worry too much about what we spew out as waste into the environment. This mode of operating is a crucial factor driving climate change as we are emitting more waste than the environment can absorb. Eventually this will come back to bite us. As is the case with most things related to climate change, it can also affect those who had the least to do with the problem.

Hence a new way of thinking or bringing back an old concept of growing within our means is needed. This requires thinking of the production cycle like a closed system (circular economy), where natural resources are used and reused to the maximum and what needs to be managed as waste is minimised. Some companies have proactively sought to adopt these approaches but such practices are yet to be fully embraced in our society. Other ideas that are slowly emerging are for consumers to rent or lease products and give it back to be ‘transformed’ into new products. Thus, cutting out waste and also reorienting the idea of ownership.

Garbage also has external costs such as illnesses and increased cost of living but also infringes on the rights of people to live in a clean and healthy environment. These are also the reasons why we need to go that extra mile and reflect on our own consumption patterns. So in our quest for more affluence, a more conscious effort is needed to guide us on what we throw away.

The fundamental for waste management from a consumer end is separation of garbage but also minimization of garbage. It is not as if we have to learn or be taught about minimising waste from scratch. Traditionally, people would recycle – from glass bottles to jam jars to used clothes and kitchen waste. We are also seeing so many more creative ways in which waste from one source can be “upclycled” or converted into something else. It will not happen overnight and much effort is needed – but it is also in our best interest for a healthier life. Hence, in this post-Meethotamulla debate about waste management, while we badly need better waste management services, it is also important to rethink what we consider waste and to put more emphasis on the individual’s responsibility towards minimising waste.

This would be the citizen’s contribution to wellbeing.

(WALK the LINE is a monthly column in the Development Page of the Business Times contributed by CEPA, an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. CEPA can be contacted by visiting the website www.cepa.lk or via info@cepa.lk)