Posted on May 30th, 2017


Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the Moratuwa University Ajith De Alwis said that Sri Lankan politics and science is like oil and water. They never mix. “It is also sad that we look at all things from a political perspective and it is high time that we bring engineering and science together towards helping the economic development of the country which is sadly lacking at present.

This is not my political ideology, but this is a statement of fact, Prof. de Alwis told Ceylon Today.

Here, he is in conversation with the Ceylon Today.

? So, a few weeks have lapsed since the Meethotamulla tragedy. What is the latest update?

A: The Urban Development Authority (UDA) has developed the old Bloemendhal Street garbage dump site into a modern city type of place and which will be a garden city without moving the garbage and to be developed into a commercial space. This is not something new and it is something that happens all over the world now. That is the same type of development which we are advocating for Meethotamulla as well which is the most sensible solution available right now.

There are people who say that there is scope for landfill mining with an abundance of scope with lots of resources buried underneath. Meetotamulla has never been a proper scientific landfill but it has been a dump in every sense of the word. So, collecting gas from a landfill is a little difficult as the design has not been done right up to now. There is still some scope for collection and some power generation. The uses of these gases could be made for some benefit and that is not a problem at all.

? There have been some choice examples of various divisional secretariats down south that have used garbage for making fertilizer. These projects have been initiated by former World Bank Head of Environment for South Asia, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya whose doctorate itself has been on waste management. They are working successfully. Why can that be extended countrywide?

A: That is a method that you collect the garbage and channel it to a compost pit and with the suitable separations. What you have in Meethotamulla is the waste without any separations. In Sri Lanka, the tragedy is that there is no company which has gone in depth into waste management. In Sri Lanka, they have helped the hazardous management places in the country.

There are choice examples of multinational corporates who are engaged in waste management. There are some top companies which are doing not only waste management but designing of equipment as well in the processes which leads to waste management. There is also reverse logistics and all that which cover the gamut of the subject. In Sri Lanka there is an operation which is the transport of waste and a bit of recycling. But, there have been no investments in proper processing. There is a lot of scope for that type of operation for the local private sector

? So, why has it not got off the ground all this time?

A: It is sad that no corporate institution in Sri Lanka has looked at this positively. If someone says that there is scope for building hotels, then everybody goes to invest in hotels. It is high time that all who think of big business, should not only think of their betterment, but also at the same time, think of the betterment of the country as well. All the people who are crying for the management of the ever increasing garbage want the government also to give unlimited support as well. That is not the way that a business establishment is to be developed. It is up to the business community to understand the risk and the returns and proceed with the projects so that it benefits the country.

? So, dont you think that some of the blue chip corporates in Sri Lanka such as John Keells Holdings PLC , Aitken Spence and Co. PLC Carsons Cumberbatch PLC and Hayleys PLC and others should get involved ?

A: Yes, there is scope for that in Sri Lanka. The Chinese developed their systems by processing American waste. They brought the waste to China and processed it. That was for paper and others as well. They were very strategic by getting the German machinery and that proved to be an unprecedented success. All the corporates or at least the blue chip corporates should come in where they have opportunities to invest and reap their returns. They will also be doing a social service, not withstanding and in addition to making their profits as well. It will be a win – win situation for all.

? How do you see this being an economically profitable venture?

A: There is no expiry date to this. The stuff is already expired. There is no shelf life over garbage.

? So, how long will that take to be implemented in Sri Lanka?

A: The tragedy is that Sri Lanka has a linear economy. We are good at buying and using things and disposing of them. We have no solution and we just pile up the waste. We are talking of sustainable development and we need to transform ourselves to a circular economy. That is going from cradle to cradle where good quality compost is used as fertilizer and the same process is repeated.
The tragedy is that we Sri Lankans do not place efficiency in our economic practices. There should be a national policy and strategies as well.

Whatever, we put as fertilizer is wasted. The energy is also wasted, but, now the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has improved its practices in generation and transmission.

? Then, what in your opinion, should be done?

A: We should stop complaining and adjust our thinking. We are not doing our bit.

? When you say we are not doing our bit, do you mean the government or some other stakeholder(s)?

A: The people. We need the people to be more efficient. The yardstick is whether we are good and efficient at using our resources. We are simply inefficient in using our resources. That is a fact.

? So, how do you expect the people to be efficient?

A: It is the way we do things. We should stop complaining saying that nothing is happening. We should not be blind to the bureaucratic circulars which I describe as ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

? So, do you believe that garbage is more a resource than a hazard?

A: Of course, it is a resource and not a hazard. You can get fertilizer and electricity out of it. The Ministry of Science and Technology will bring in the people who have ideas but whose perceptions have not been factored into policy. They are going to hold a meeting with the stakeholders who have a 360 degree perspective. They will come with a set of proposals and some recommendations that everybody will agree upon.

? Well, all this time as the power sector is concerned and with no power generation project in sight till at least 2022, it has been NATO, not the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but for No Action Talk Only! How do you see this?

A: There has been a lot of talk but there has been some action as well. We have not been coherent in our policies. Without collecting the garbage despite our commitments to climate change, the theme of the debate is what is our collection of waste?

What we should be worried is the recycling rate. That is the yard stick. What is the infrastructure we have for recycling and how we do support that? That is what has to be answered. We think that collection is the end of the process when it is the start of the process. Recycling is the way forward and that is what we should be talking about.

? How long do you think that the process would take?

A: If you start it today, you can finish it tomorrow.

? What do you mean? It is it in the literal sense?

A: It can be literally. All you have to do is to collect your domestic garbage and use a garbage recycling bin at home, and then you can start the processes almost immediately. There are 400,000 households in the Colombo City and if the first 25 per cent start doing that, we could reduce a lot of things. It is all about understanding that all of us generate waste and all of us need to handle the problem, and not wait for the government to do that.

? So, if everybody at home does this at a domestic level, will that make a big difference?

A: It has to be everybody at home, offices and everywhere. We have to think, what is happening to our waste at home, offices and also while travelling. If all the Sri Lankans could do that with their heads and hearts, a lot of things can change.

? So, if all the households manage their garbage that way, at least say 70-80 per cent of the total population, will there be enough garbage left for a commercial operation?

A: That may not happen that way. We are not that efficient at all. Also it is not possible as well. On the other hand, while there are the lower cost options, why do we need to go for mega projects? We should understand the problem. Mega is the recycling operation.

That will be possible for the industrial waste as they are not going to tell their businesses to run a separate facility to meet their waste management process. They do it as a network. We are talking about the Municipal solid waste at domestic level. The other is the industrial waste which has to be managed separately.

? How do you address and handle the domestic waste and industrial waste?

A: The law is very clear on this. One cannot dump the industrial waste into the Divisional Secretariat waste bin. There is a separate process for that. Industrial waste management is under the aegis of the Central Environment Authority (CEA). It should be based on sound technical and economic decisions.

? Now there seems to be some ambiguity about the Megapolis Ministry having some projects and also which is seen to be clashing with the Western Province Provincial Council with investors arriving for garbage management projects. How do you see this?

A: Irrespective of who is trying to do what, it should not be officials or politicians meeting investors at a five star hotel over cocktails and dinner and thrusting down our throats that there are investors for waste management. There should be a pathway where proposals are called and there is transparency in that process. All projects should be analyzed scientifically.

? How is that no one in the business community has thought in these lines?

A: I don’t know as I am a university teacher and researcher. But, what we know is that most companies are investing heavily into hotels. Even manufacturing companies are going to invest in hotels.

? May be this is a relatively new area that is not known yet. But, if the sole motive of these corporates is to make money and are aware of the returns and the social role that they are playing in, they will change their thinking?

A: The best example is China. You visit the Alibaba website and see how many trades are done on waste products. That includes Sri Lanka as well. When we wanted to start the process in Sri Lanka, the process failed three times.

The way that it usually happens is that that there are the garbage sellers, who list their products and the specifications on a portal and there are the buyers who access the information from that. Sri Lanka has been backward in this regard.

? Then, what is the way forward?

A: The way forward is to be scientific in our approach without being gullible. There are so many investors who have applied for the disposal of waste through the website.

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