The MWRP project ‘Reducing/Minimising the Use of Polythene in western coast of Sri Lanka’ was a project operating in Negombo. Its main objective was to reduce marine environmental pollution through reduced plastic and polythene use and improved waste recycling.
When you rank countries on the amount of plastic waste leakage into the ocean, Sri Lanka appears in the top 10. Maybe even the top 5.
That is not surprising.
14 million people live near the coastline. Effective waste management is missing in many places.
People get frustrated with the lack of alternatives to dispose of waste. This leads to dumping of waste in rivers and other waterways.
The plastic trash them finds its way into the oceans with the next rainfall.
Often the only option for many people is burning or burying the plastic.
Given the health risks posed to the families involved, these seem to be very bad alternatives.
Apart from the direct health issues, plastic pollution also impacts the population economically.
Tourism is a massive earner of foreign income in Sri Lanka.
Visitors come for the pristine beaches.
Pollution destroys the attraction for the paying tourist. I saw a google rating of one tourist beach with one star ratings with the comment “Beach completely ruined by plastic trash”
Maybe next year that tourist will be visiting somewhere else.
The capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, lies on the east coast. Directly north of Colombo is the city of Negombo. A city of about 150 thousand people.
Negombo is known for its long sandy beaches and centuries old fishing industry
It is attracts tourists because of its nearness to the international airport as well as its attractive location on the ocean.
But it does have a waste problem.
Negombo has a shallow lagoon which in old times provided safe harbour for seafaring ships.
Nowadays it shelters mainly fishing boats and a whole lot of plastic trash.
In 2017 a project called the Municipal Waste Recycling Program was started to look into opportunities to deal with marine plastic pollution.
We talked to Damitha XXX. Damitha worked in the program for 2 years starting in 2017.
He told me that optics can deceive and was surprised by what you find by just reaching into the water.
The Municipal Waste Recycling Project identified a serious source of waste was the behaviour of the local fishermen. The lagoon is home to about 300 fishing boats.
Working with fishermen is perceived to be difficult. Most people would say that it is difficult to work with them. Damitha mindset was very much like that when he started dealing with the fishermen and talking to them about how they went about disposing of the plastic items they used when working.
At some stage he realized that formal education does not measure what people really are. When Damitha and his team interacted , they discovered that the fishermen were wholeheartedly into preserving the ocean that brings them their livelihood.
The sea is next to god for them. They wanted to do something to protect the seas so they became actively engaged once they understood the aims of the project.
Reflection: so you have these university educated guys working together with people who spend their lives out on the water, interacting with the tools of constructive dialog and finding that they both have the same goals and that something very good can come out of that.
Damitha and his team narrowed in one specific item that promised the biggest win: small water bottles. The fishermen are at sea for some weeks and take with them hundreds of 500 ml plastic water bottles. These have the convenience that you can easily take a sip of water without interrupting the work. The problem is that after emptying, the bottle had no worth and was typically disposed overboard.
The solution which was actually proposed by the fishermen, was to ban the small bottles and allow only larger plastic bottles. The minimum size was set to 5 litres. These larger bottles still had value after emptying and were brought back to the harbour and reused during the next fishing round.
How many bottles would a fishing boat have on board for a fishing trip?
If each boat has 600 bottles and there are 300 boats that’s a lot of plastic that can be avoided with this system! Did all the boats convert to this system?
100 boats from 300 boats have converted.
It is now a legal measure. I started thinking about the importance of making something like this a legal requirement. I thought, if it obviously a win for the environment without any loss in convenience, wouldn’t this be enough to convince people.
I then started thinking about my own experience, when plastic shopping bags became no longer legal. There had been a period when the plastic shopping bags were no longer free and cost 10 or twenty cents. People still didn’t seem to get it and it was only with a total ban that people switched to bringing reusable bags with them when shopping.
We hate change but when there is an alternative and a legal framework so that we see our neighbour also has to conform to the new behaviour, then I guess we can change our behaviour after all.
Everyone wants to google “plastic pollution solution” and come to the conclusion that pyrolysis or recycling or avoidance of all plastic is the way to go but this case shows that there will be a million different solutions. It just depends on where you are, what is the cause of the pollution and what acceptable alternatives are available. I say acceptable because nobody will accept not using plastic in a critical situation such as healthcare. But if there is a easy alternative. We should go for it, encourage it and maybe even legislate for it.