Garbage Mounds, Political hounds and the food you eat.
Posted on August 1st, 2019

By Chandre Dharmawardana, Canada.

Nearly 4000 metric tons of illegally imported hazardous garbage, contaminated with hospital waste and human organs have been found in Colombo’s free trade zone. The foul stench emanating from the illegal cargo had let the cat out of the bag!

The Island Newspaper Editorial and writers like Dr. Ratnasiri (I29-07-2019, Island)  have discussed the loopholes that have been created by interested parties to make easy money from the increasingly acute garbage problem faced by most countries. Of course, the very same politicians who failed to stave off  suicide attacks that they knew of before hand, and  those  who promised to make Colombo a clean city and get rid of the Meethotamulla garbage dump after it exploded, have risen to exploit the  occasion and promised to take immediate action” and punish the culprits. The public knows very well that these promises by political hounds chasing carrion mean nothing, and that those who shout thief”  may very well be hand-in-glove with the perpetrators bf these very crimes against the public.

Meanwhile, several people who had read my  articles (e.g., Island 6th May, or 17 the June) on the subject of generating sustainable energy using  floating solar panels, coconut husks, rubber  or castor seeds and other ‘dendro biomass’  instead of  fossil fuels,  had written to this writer  inquiring about the practicability of using urban waste to produce bio-energy and fertilizer”, thus  solving at one stroke the garbage problem, the energy problem, and also getting rid of industrial” fertilizers and pesticides which are alleged to be full of toxins.

The claim that our food is dangerously full of toxins is a popular slogan for many public figures including  Venerable Ratana and Dr. Jayasumana. They have more recently found fallopian tubes to be even more politically rewarding to them than grappling with toxins and kidney disease.  The vacuum created has been rapidly taken up by others. So the agriculture minster, P. Harrison,  claims (Island, July 29th, 2019) that:

  “our vegetables are toxic. Our farmers use 300,000 metric tonnes of synthetic fertilizer and 5,000  tonnes of pesticides annually. We have 20,000 CKDu patients in the province. Our farmers put pesticides a few days before the produce is harvested and this places the lives of our people in danger”.

The minister is no scientist, and CANNOT  be blamed because such misleading views have been aired even in some local agricultural journals.  It is easy to blame the farms and the multinationals and change the pillow and claim to cure dysentery or eradicate dengue!

I have discussed such erroneous and fear-mongering claims in detail in articles that were published by the Daily News ( 07-November-2018, and 19-April 2018 http://www.dailynews.lk/2018/11/07/features/167704/toxic-cocktail-myth-and-truth,

http://www.dailynews.lk/2018/11/07/features/167704/toxic-cocktail-myth-and-truth ). Our vegetables and rice are no more toxic than what may be found in UK supermarkets, although some very wealthy people in Colombo fly in their weekly supply of organic food from Brexiting England and drink only Perrier water!

Can garbage be reprocessed into bio-fertilzer and energy cheaply and safely?

Leave aside Sri Lanka, even technically very advanced and organized countries like Japan are straining

under the problem of garbage. In spite of strong legislation, only a small percentage of household garbage is properly sorted out.  Landfills are already strained to capacity, and if left alone produce liquid matter (leachate) which percolates into the underground water table and contaminates drinking wells, rivers, and reservoirs. Even simply burning of garbage is no solution as it is expensive and some 15% of the garbage becomes ash or solid waste. There are no landfills to accommodate even the ash resulting from the incineration of garbage. Furthermore,  incineration adds to global warming and generates toxic gases and dangerous sub-micron particulate dust at levels far worse than from coal-fired power stations. A crisis situation is expected in Japan within 15-20 years, and Japanese businesses have been discretely shipping out their garbage to poorer countries using free-trade” loopholes.

In any case, Sri Lanka does not have the political and administrative discipline of a country like Japan or Germany, and if those countries are failing, one would wonder how countries like India, Bangladesh or  and Nigeria are coping. We only have to go to Chennai, India and drive along the superb  Pullavaram highway taking you to the high-tech IT sector, when the stench from a huge garbage dump which is hundred times bigger than the Meethotamulla looms into view, standing two to three stories high (see the figure of the Colombo and Chennai dump). There are, of course several such dumps in the Chennai area, while garbage is found in every street corner of the pooer districts. Fires and explosions occur every now and then. Poor people die and politicians come and go, but the dumps continue to go.

The public is legislated to sort out” their garbage into several bins to hoodwink the public, but the problem is so massive that the sorted out bins are not processed any further. Most cities do absolutely NOTHING which is effective. However, garbage dumps in advanced countries are not abandoned, but they are supervised and well-controlled, even if environmentally damaging. They do not periodically explode and kill people.

The very same issue of the Island newspaper that carried Dr. Ratnasiri’s article, an article by Mr. Gomi Senadhrira ( an ex-trade negotiator of the government) emphasizes dire consequences” in.

  importing of garbage of all sorts in accordance with the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (SL-SFTA). …. Senadhira expressed his views in the wake of  Finance Minister Samaraweera revealing in Parliament last Friday UK  garbage imports began in 2017”.

The question then is, can we use urban garbage, available in plenty, not only in Meethotamulla but also in every major city in Sri Lanka or in all other countries, to make energy, and organic”  fertilizer to feed the world with allegedly toxin-free organic” food, and save all the money used for buying mineral fertilizers and pesticides used in conventional agriculture? If the advanced countries are forced to export their garbage legally or illegally, can we build a thriving industry by processing garbage globally?

One of the individuals who wrote to me inquiring about using garbage to make energy and fertilizer drew attention to some statements by a Colombo environmentalist Vidya Abhayagunawardena. He had stated (Sunday  Observer, 14 October 2018) that:

  Garbage is not rocket science anymore. We have enough technology to solve this issue. What we do not have is the political will to do so,” Abhayagunawardena said, adding, thus far governments have  failed to provide sustainable solutions to the matter.”.

The present writer has to  strongly disagree with Mr. Abhayagunawardena. There is in fact NO AFFORDABLE, SAFE technology currently available anywhere in the world for handling urban garbage at the scale and rate it is produced all over the world.  Solving the garbage problem at an affordable cost is utterly more difficult than rocket science which is mostly based on well understood classic engineering practice.

What the developed world has been doing in most localities, except in some extremely technologically and educationally sophisticated and wealthy cities (like Santa Barbara California) is to hoodwink the citizens. Even in cities like Toronto, Canada, the citizens have been told for years to separate out their household garbage into plastic, paper, and food waste, hazardous waste and so on, claiming that municipal contractors will recycle the plastic and paper while recovering energy and bio-fertilizer (compost) from the bio-waste. But only a tiny fraction of the waste is actually properly handled. The rest, including hazardous waste,  has been illegally shipped to third-world” countries like Malaysia, Philippines, Bangladesh and probably Sri Lanka. The recently detected 230 illegal containers in the Colombo free-trade zone is only like the visible tip of the iceberg. It is alleged that much more money had been made by some  powerful Perera’s” for at least a decade!

After a decade of being tricked, the Philippines has arm-twisted Canada and re-shipped  Canadian garbage to Vancouver, at a cost of nearly CAN $1.5 million to the Canadian taxpayer and loss of face to Canada. If the technology is as simple as  Mr. Vidya Abhayagunawardena.says, Canada would not have simply incinerated the waste – an environmentally unacceptable and expensive last case”  solution. It will not be possible to to arm-twist the UK as the UK  too has no effective and responsible government, with Boris Jonson, a jingoist politician who was at one time a reporter who established a reputation of inventing false news that fitted the appetite of the foolish British  public as well as the style of the BBC channel-4 propaganda. 

Simple nostalgia and cottage solutions will not work.

Many goodhearted but technologically naive individuals believe that all this can be solved by going back to the past, by turning the industrial model of food production into a village enterprise,  with revived tanks centered around the temple, with household garbage and animal droppings providing compost for the farm, while the Gambaedda” and Chena” providing firewood and fodder and herbal medicine. Work is done communally and manually, usually under the hegemony of a feudal social structure that imposed discipline by controlling the food supply to the peasants by a land tenure system. Such simple pastoral societies eat what is known today as organic food”, but are notoriously susceptible to famine and sickness, pestilence, poverty, and conquest. The average life expectancy in such societies was about 35 years. Furthermore, agrarian societies were far more environmentally damaging (per capita) than modern societies, or  hunter-gatherer societies where humans lived in harmony with nature, at a demographic level strictly controlled by the food supply available in virgin forests as well as the dangers to life due to natural causes” like epidemics and wild animals.  The environmentalists of today do not wish to return to the ecologically sound hunter-gatherer society, as they want their computers, cars, cell phones, and air conditioning and longevity while being wedded to ancient ideologies!

Composting, whether it be done in with modern vermicular methods etc., or in the old fashioned way, is no longer environmentally friendly as compost heaps produce a lot of greenhouse gases. Unlike in agrarian societies, modern urban waste has old batteries, shampoos, leftover medicines, birth control pills, cortisone, statins, rancid oil, kitchen waste, paint, plastic, and ‘YOU-NAME-IT’. Even if the city asks you to separate hazardous, toxic, chemical, electrical, medical and kitchen waste, that is mostly to make it easier to ship the problem to a poorer nation.

Some of these poor nations like India actually do make compost out of urban garbage, and sell the compost back to wealthier nations under the label of organic fertilizer”, especially if the garbage has been composted with some Neem leaves!  Garbage is often fed to swine and chicken, and the compost made from their droppings is extremely high in industrial toxins and heavy metal residues. Unfortunately, there is no legislation requiring that organic fertilizer importers or producer reveals the chemical composition of the market product. The usual organic certification does check on the METHOD of composting but no chemical analysis of the raw materials is done. In Sri Lanka, any given organic fertilizer producer is ready to indict his competitor claiming that the rival is using sludge from the bottom of tanks, or using urban garbage (Sidaadiyen genapu jaraava”).

So if tomatoes or rice is grown using such compost when the plant takes up water, all those toxins go up into the vegetables, or paddy, or whatever. Experiments show that if the soil has broken torch batteries, then Nikel and cadmium from those batters get absorbed by the rice and as plants don’t have kidneys, the toxins ACCUMULATE in the rice. If the soil or the added fertilizer is such that 5 micrograms of cadmium is present in a kilo of soil, the plant and its seeds may have some hundred times more toxins due to photo-accumulation. But such rice may still be sold as “organic rice”, and such tomatoes are sold as “organic tomatoes”, at 5 to 10 times the price of conventional vegetables.  Consumers are told, even by ministers of agriculture,  to not to eat the normal vegetables because the normal vegetables (grown with fertilizers, pesticides, etc) are full of trace amounts of toxic pesticide and fertilizer residues.

In Sri Lanka, some parts of the Rajarata soil is full of fluoride naturally (i.e., geology) and the water is hard (Kivul”). People who drink such water get kidney disease called CKDu, while those who drink water from agricultural canals do NOT get CKDu! Nevertheless,  the authorities and politicians like Ven. Rathana blames pesticides instead of providing the people with clean piped water. It is cheaper to blame glyphosate and ban it, instead of doing something positive.

Is there something we can do with the Garbage?

The garbage in open dumps like Meethotamulla is too wet, mixed and too polluted for use in energy production efficiently. The first step is to protect it and supervise it. Birds and animals feeding on open garbage dumps collect toxins in their bodies. Micro-organisms, worms and scavenger creatures that feed on their carcasses distribute the toxins into the food chain. So open garbage dumps have to be eliminated long before coal-power plants are eliminated. However, the focus in many parts of the world has been on the presence of a few parts per BILLION  of glyphosate in the environment!

We must PREVENT the garbage being used for making compost to grow FOOD, for humans or for livestock, chicken or fish and any contamination of the food chain must be prevented. However, landfills will contaminate the water table surely and certainly in warm humid climates. So it is essential to move and bury the garbage AWAY  from human habitations so that micro-organism will work on them. Shipping them to covered landfills in arid or desert-like areas and harvest the methane and other gases arising from bacterial action as such gas must NOT escape. Such a process can in the long term help to bring deserts and arid lands back to less arid conditions but they are by no means cheap.

So, the only way to make money from wet garbage is to CHARGE money for its disposal from households, and charge money from citizens to take them away to isolated places and guard them and seal them from the environment and the food chain until bacterial decay sets in. As citizens and politicians realize the cost of garbage, they will sort the garbage and so a  fraction of the garbage can indeed be recycled and reused in a sensible way. It is not clear if populist democracies subject to the sway of demagogues and crooks will solve these problems.

3 Responses to “Garbage Mounds, Political hounds and the food you eat.”

  1. aloy Says:

    Dr.Chandre,
    “The claim that our food is dangerously full of toxins is a popular slogan for many public figures including Venerable Ratana and Dr. Jayasumana. They have more recently found fallopian tubes to be even more politically rewarding to them than grappling with toxins and kidney disease”

    Your article is about garbage. How relevant is the above quoted piece from your article in all these?. You are a proponent of use of glyphosate which has actually resulted in the kidney decease killing hundreds of thousands of Rajarata farmers. So, does it mean that Glyphosate, Agrochemicals ( perhaps laced with poison) and damaged fallopian tubes are all interconnected and is funded by the same source to finish off Sinhalese of Rajarata?.

  2. dingiri bandara Says:

    Garbage is an international problem. So many unnecessary things are made that create garbage and problem is not to produce such item in the name of economic growth. As I have mentioned before the rich companies that are responsible must also be made find ways to get rid of the garbage they create.
    The solution is not to create unnecessary garbage.

  3. aloy Says:

    This is not about garbage; some kind of politics, pure and simple. Kurunegala/Rajarata Sinhalese have to pay for the sins of rulers circa 1505 with their lives. I never knew people can be so cruel to talk about the fallopian tubes of innocent Sinhala mothers so sarcastically. This WM Chandre should apologize from these mothers.

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