By Jithendri Gomes
Being environmentally friendly is a lifestyle choice you make and a decision that has to be made every day. It certainly is a commitment and may inconvenience you as opposed to what you are used to. Tonnes of plastic are dumped to the environment every year. We are encouraged to use less single-use plastic by conservationists. At the same time, the manufacturers of this say that consumers have a responsibility, especially when there are better alternatives now available to them. And they certainly have the means to control it as well.
We spoke with Jayantha Wijesinghe, a vocal environmentalist and the Convener of the Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka (RPSL), about the usage of polythene and plastics and how best we can regulate it. He introduced three ways in which it can be done:
Extended Producer Responsibility
If you study any area that is heavily polluted, you will soon find what products caused it, and most often discover the products to be of multinational companies. If the Government approaches these companies and comes to an agreement to not sell plastic packaging to shops, for instance, in Sri Pada, it will give us a long-term solution.
“These companies are more than capable to invent biodegradable covers,” he said. “In fact, under the Extended Producer Responsibility law, these manufactures are held accountable for their product even after consumption. Encouraging them to find new innovative packaging will help in the long term. Both the government and multinationals are equally responsible to collect their garbage.”
Polluter pays principle
In environmental law, the polluter pays principle is enacted to make the party responsible for producing pollution pay for the damages done to the natural environment. It is a fundamental principle in US environmental law, which is currently being adopted by most countries in order to ensure they balance off the damages caused.
“For example, in 2015, we found that there were over 500 pollutants in the Kelani River. One main contributor was identified as Coca-Cola. This law forces the polluters to pay for the damage they cause and the cost that will be incurred to reverse the impact. In this case, the Government issued a fine of Rs. 1 billion, but as all things go with our system, it was not followed up and the fine was not paid.”
Polluter cleans principle
Wijesinghe stated that the polluter cleans principle is a fantastic new policy introduced recently to back all environmental conservation efforts. This is where the polluter literally cleans up the damages caused. This way, multinationals or businesses will not be allowed to throw money at the problem and walk away. However, he also noted that this principle is still in its initial stages.
“With all of these principles, there is a massive responsibility with the governing bodies to ensure they are issued and followed all the way to completion. In the case of Sri Lanka, we will have different ministries overlooking each area. If there is pollution in Adam’s Peak or Independence Square, it will be under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. All rivers, tanks, and inland water bodies will come under the Ministry of Irrigation. The success of these principles lies with how well we execute them,” he added.
Why did the plastic ban fail?
The National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980, with effect from 1 January 2007, prohibits –
(i) The manufacture of polythene or any polythene product of 20 microns or below in thickness for in-country use
(ii) The sale or use of polythene or any polythene product which is 20 microns or below in thickness
For the purposes of this order, “polythene” means any solid products, bags, material, or contrivances manufactured using all forms of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, poly vinyl chloride, polyethylene terephthalate, or any other similar raw material used for the purpose of carrying, packing, wrapping, or packaging.
“In my opinion, it had a lot to do with the Government not encouraging the public. As a country, we are far from moving away from plastics. So the Government must be more organised about promoting it and continue with the ban till it becomes part of the public’s lifestyle. The second reason is that they also didn’t introduce an alternative option. The consumer is lenient towards convenience, so there has to be good options for them to pick from,” Wijesinghe noted.
He further spoke of the depth of consequences caused by the actions or lack of action by the Government. The Government also gave way to the demands made by trade unions, businessmen, and multinationals. What they should do instead is give subsidies to producers who present alternative options, he explained. In the past few years, the bans placed on the use of asbestos and plastic were reversed due to multiple agencies pressurising the Government, and, as Wijesinghe pointed out, due to these inefficiencies of the State, people too lose faith in the law and don’t follow it seriously.
Is biodegradable packaging a solution?
What we fail to identify is that “environmentally friendly” plastics fall into three types:
- Bioplastics made from natural materials such as corn starch
- Biodegradable plastics made from traditional petrochemicals engineered to break down more quickly
- Eco/recycled plastics which are simply plastics made from recycled plastic materials rather than raw petrochemicals
Most often, the plastic used in biodegradable packaging is polythene that breaks down fast but remains in the soil. This can be more harmful than plastic that is easier to identify and extract from the environment and causes soil pollution. Only if the plastic is truly 100% biodegradable will the effort be a success. We do have companies in Sri Lanka that use materials like manioc pulp to produce completely biodegradable products, and their portfolios include bags, cups, bottles, yogurt cups, and everything else. They now seek the support of the Government and other relevant bodies to expand and manufacture, which may lead to more economies of scale.
EcoLanka Director Saranga Panapitiya walked us through the process of manufacturing biodegradable products and identifying which is better. The product as a whole can be divided into two categories – home compostable and industrial compostable. Most developed countries encourage home compostable products as it is completely degradable in your home garden within a period of six to 12 months. Industrial compostable products, on the other hand, in a natural environment will take between two and five years. Therefore, they need a specific type of manmade environment for it to fully compost.
EcoLanka produces a combination of bioactive and degradable products, which also can be divided into two main categories, of which one is a combination of polylactic acid (PLA) and polybutylene (PBAT). Polylactic acid or polylactide (PLA) is thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable biomass, typically from fermented plant starch such as corn, cassava, sugarcane, or sugar beet pulp. The second mostly comprises low density polyethylene and d2w, which is a British standard. This product is less is in price, but belongs to the industrial compostable products category which takes longer to degrade.
Why hasn’t the trend picked up in Sri Lanka?
“We have lots of local inquiries about our products, but what we found is that our prices are not compatible for the local market. Our biodegradable products include banana leaves, corn starch, and paddy waste. The process is far more complicated than just using chemicals, hence the price. What we also found is that we are not ready to spend more for environmentally friendly products. This is true of both the consumer and manufacturing companies,” Panapitiya noted.
He went on to say that EcoLanka clients are mostly from European countries, the US, and Australia, all of which follow unique, high standards. The company caters to all of these standards. However, the need for similar regulation in Sri Lanka for all our environmentally harmful products, especially plastic, was emphasised.
“It is only once a disaster like the Meethotamulla incident happens that we consider the repercussions. We also soon forget about it. Only the people affected will remember the importance of reducing the usage of polythene and plastics. We need to educate the masses to be more socially responsible and chose the right thing to do,” he voiced.
Panapitiya explained how sometimes it is not expensive to choose to be environmentally friendly. Most of our supermarkets have cloth bags for a reasonable amount and go to the extent of compensating our choice for making an environmentally friendly decision. It is our people who choose convenience over doing the right thing. We also have to regulate smaller grocery stores that give out a lot of polythene bags and offer alternatives, he said.
“Law enforcement together with raising awareness will help change our people’s attitudes. The Government together with the media must combine their efforts to do so. If there is a standardisation and certification required from the manufacturers of plastics and polythene, it can be better regulated,” he added.
You can visit the EcoLanka website https://www.ecolankapack.com/ to find out more about their product portfolio and the services they offer.