Overcoming Open Waste Dumping Practices in Sri Lanka

ILO / Alan Dow
A garbage sorter works at a bio waste management center in Sri Lanka.

The practice of open waste dumping is a significant issue in Sri Lanka. Between 1999 and 2009, the amount of solid waste generated daily rose from an estimated 6,500 tons to 7,500 tonnes.1 Of this waste, as much as 85 percent is deposited at open dumpsites each day.2 While the environmental and socio-economic implications of open waste dumping are commonly discussed, recent casualties stemming from the collapse of the Meethotamulla dumpsite in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, highlight the additional risk of this practice to human life.3

One solution to overcoming open waste dumping is incorporating landfill taxes and community engagement strategies for composting and waste segregation. By combining taxation and community engagement, Sri Lanka can address both waste disposal practices and the underlying domestic waste generation behavior that requires disposal mechanisms. This can be achieved by encouraging pro-environmental norm creation and stimulating paradigmatic changes through community scenario planning in both waste disposal and waste generation practices. Furthermore, landfill taxes provide a disincentive to waste generation and can fund an alternative to open waste dumping, which is an immediate concern for Sri Lanka.

The Problem: Open Waste Dumping


The practice of open waste dumping in Sri Lanka is rooted in two underlying causes: municipal failures to collect and dispose of waste responsibly and public attitudes towards waste disposal. Open waste dumping is recognized as a widespread disposal practice across low-income Asian countries and is especially prevalent in rural communities.4-6 In Sri Lanka, waste management is regulated at a municipality level by Local Authorities (LAs).7 Although bound by the Local Government Act, LAs are rarely held accountable to national waste management policies and open waste dumping is the most popular municipal waste disposal mechanism adopted.7,8 Moreover, most LAs fail to service all households within their municipalities, with as few as 24 percent of households reported to be serviced in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka.9 Households left to dispose their own waste often resort to roadside dumping.7 Municipal failure to provide adequate waste disposal services is a self-reinforcing feedback loop, amplified by increased urbanization and ensuing waste outputs.10

Another predominant cause of open waste dumping is public sentiment regarding waste. Public attitude towards the practice is a significant reinforcing factor of open waste dumping, as households both generate waste and participate in waste disposal practices.8 At present, the attitudes held by Sri Lankan households is not promising. In a study of waste management conducted by Vidanaarachchi et al.,9 it was found that 81 percent of the households surveyed were content with the waste management services provided. This lack of public motivation to revise waste disposal practices may stem from a lack of information regarding the impact of the practice. Alternately, it may stem from a ‘societal addiction’ to a knowingly harmful practice based on the immediate benefit of cheap and easy disposal.11 Thus, changing attitudes towards waste is integral to the revision of socio-ecological regimes that normalize open waste dumping, acting as the driving force of the current social trap underpinning these practices.11,12


MTV / News 1st
Wreckage after the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapsed in April 2017.

Open waste dumping has profound environmental impacts. In Sri Lanka, the lack of regulation regarding dumpsites has resulted in dumping occurring in ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands and along riverbanks, as well as within declared conservation zones.7,9,13 Consequently, leachate released from decomposing waste is contaminating soil and waterways while biodiversity and ecosystem health is threatened by the location of these dumpsites in ecologically sensitive areas.13 Additionally, methane emissions and volatile organic compounds released by decomposing waste causes air pollution and affects atmospheric regulation.7 The location of dumpsites in conservation areas and other ecologically valuable ecosystems indicates that a multitude of ecosystem services are at risk. Leachate affects nitrogen cycles, freshwater availability, and chemical pollution while methane emissions affect atmospheric regulation and the dumpsites as a whole have consequences for biodiversity loss.

Open dumpsites have also resulted in numerous socio-economic problems. Due to urbanization, open dumpsites are increasingly encroached upon by housing, which exasperates direct and steadily worsening impacts on human well-being.6 Moreover, diseases spread by vectors breeding in dumpsites and illnesses from decomposing wastes polluting the air generate serious health consequences.13  Dumpsites are also associated with the loss of property value for houses in the near vicinity, having significant economic implications for homeowners.7 Finally, the recent tragedy involving the Meethotamulla dump site demonstrated the immediate threat of open waste dumping to human life. On April 14, 2017, a 91 meter stretch of waste at the Meethotamulla dumpsite collapsed on neighboring houses, claiming 26 lives.3,14 The tragedy was especially controversial as the site had already been deemed dangerous, with  two petitions to prevent dumping at it pending at the time of its collapse.14,15

Existing Alternatives

At present, the most prominent proposed alternatives are sanitary landfills and open dump mining strategies. However, attempts to implement a sanitary landfill in the Colombo municipality were met with widespread resistance regarding where the new site would be located.7 Comparatively, open dump mining extracts wastes from dumpsites and recycles them in production, either in the Sri Lankan cement industry or electricity generation.2 While the process will avoid public contentions regarding location and minimize wastes at dumpsites, it is considered economically unfeasible.2 It is important to note that neither alternative presents a sustainable solution to waste disposal as they each involve the retention of some form of waste disposal mechanism, enabling current waste generation behavior to persist.4

The Solutions: Landfill Taxes and Community Engagement

To successfully address open waste dumping in Sri Lanka, the issue must be addressed at two temporal scales. Following the collapse of the Meethotamulla dump, the 800 tons of garbage transported daily to the site is being redistributed between two other open dumpsites within the Colombo municipality.14 This response to waste disposal in the face of a tragedy is indicative of the societal trap within which Sri Lankan waste disposal is practiced. Therefore, an immediate alternative to open waste dumping is required. The solution needs to be environmentally sound, as well as socially desirable and financially feasible to overcome the resistance met by proposed alternatives in the past.

A long-term solution that addresses domestic waste disposal behavior is required. Such a solution would tackle the lack of public sentiment in preventing open dumping, encourage pro-environmental norm creation, and create disincentives for waste generating behaviors. By striving to rectify open waste dumping through paradigmatic change that integrates human well-being and the preservation of natural capital, a long-term solution is more aligned with ecological economics.16 Compared to a neoclassical economic solution encompassing innovation or the substitutability of natural capital, or an ecological view that limits solutions to addressing predominantly environmental impacts, a solution that hinges on paradigmatic change is considerably more holistic and takes into consideration the environmental, social, and economic implications of actions.17,18

MTV / News 1st
Reconstruction following the collape of the Meethotamulla garbage dump.

When formulating immediate and long-term solutions, scale-matching, participation, and distribution must be taken into consideration. In order to maximize the effectivity of the solution, waste management should be regulated at the scale of its impact.19 With respect to distribution and participation, ensuring inclusive decision-making in design and implementation can create a sense of shared responsibility as well as better distribution of the benefits and impacts of the solutions undertaken.19

Landfill Taxes

Accordingly, landfill taxes are a solution to funding an immediate alternative waste disposal mechanism, as well as to act as a disincentive to domestic waste production. In Sri Lanka, lack of funding is a significant reinforcing factor of municipal waste mismanagement. At present, Sri Lanka has no payment mechanism in place to fund waste management, except for a fee inclusion in property taxes that is paid by only 41 percent of households in the Southern province.9 Implementing a household tax tied to the quantity of waste transported to landfills will create a revenue stream to fund an alternate disposal mechanism.

Landfill taxes attempt to re-price waste disposal to internalize the environmental impacts that are often excluded from the assessment of waste management.20 In doing so, a landfill tax can promote reduced waste production and increased reuse of recycling. In the UK Landfill Tax system, the tax is collected by registered landfill operators. The system has been criticized, however, for not appropriately channeling the funds to recycling or reuse initiatives.21 Thus, landfill taxes should be collected by a central municipal authority and the channeling of funds to initiatives should be legislated.

Community Engagement through Composting and Waste Segregation

Community participation in waste disposal has been found to be a more cost-effective than exclusively municipal-led waste management.22 Additionally, organic matter constitutes a large proportion of Sri Lankan waste, with studies estimating that between 76 and 90 percent of household waste is compostable.7,13 Therefore, community participation in waste segregation and composting can reduce the cost of waste management, removing financial constraints as a reinforcing factor of municipal waste mismanagement.  It can also considerably minimize the quantity of waste that needs to be disposed by transforming waste to compost.

Community participation in waste management can engage households at the community level, creating awareness regarding the environmental and impact of waste disposal and triggering a paradigm shift. Moreover, by shifting away from a centralized, municipal system of waste disposal and adopting community level strategies for waste segregation and composting, the system can self-organize and establish an adaptive management model for waste disposal. Finally, community engagement in deliberative democratic discourse can shift paradigms towards reduced waste production by providing a vessel for shared vision building using methods such as community scenario planning.

Deliberative democracy and community scenario planning, while two distinguished concepts, complement one another. On one hand, deliberative democracy encompasses a system of inclusive, linear organization that enables everyone to participate in decision-making.23 On the other, community scenario planning is suggested as an extension of scenario planning at a societal level, where alternate futures are detailed to a community in order to help them deliberate the most socially desirable future, and then work toward achieving it.11,16 The two concepts go hand in hand where deliberative democracies can facilitate spaces in which to reach a consensus about the most desirable future. Consensus on the goals of society can then influence action, in which the necessary institutions are established to allow the collective vision to materialise.24 If successfully implemented, community engagement strategies can enrich social capital by creating a platform of shared goal setting to reduce individual waste generation behaviors, improve individual waste disposal practices, and advocate for changed institutional waste management policy.

Challenges and the Implications of Failure

ILO / Alan Dow
A garbage sorter collects items at a waste management center in Sri Lanka.

Landfill taxes and community engagement strategies are subject to challenges of implementation. In the context of implementing landfill taxes, while the need for additional funding is widely acknowledged in political discourse, public willingness to pay remains low.9 This compromises the political feasibility of landfill taxes. Due to a low willingness to pay, implementing landfill taxes may risk creating perverse incentives to undertake roadside dumping as a means of avoiding taxation. In doing so, the solution would fail to generate funds for an alternative mechanism and contradict the objective of pro-environmental norm creation.

Similarly, the feasibility of community engagement hinges on public willingness to participate in waste segregation and compositing initiatives. Willingness to participate is associated with the difficulty to engage households in deliberation that transcends the various socio-economic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds of citizenry. In the EXNORA community waste scheme implemented in Hyderabad and Chennai, researchers noted that members of the community actively resisted collaborating with waste collectors because of social taboos regarding associating with lower castes.25 Accordingly, rural areas are recognized as better climates for fostering partnerships, due to the relatively higher homogeneity of community members.6 A lack of willingness to participate in an inclusive deliberative democracy would be a major impediment for shared vision building and prevent the creation of the consensus needed to drive behavioral and institutional change.

Ultimately, the challenges to implementing both landfill taxes and community engagement strategies is closely aligned with public attitudes to waste. Public awareness and attitudes regarding waste greatly influence cooperation and participation in any waste management scheme.6,26 Thus, disseminating information about impacts of open waste dumping can increase public awareness and facilitate changing public attitudes. While information flows and awareness creation are key features of the community engagement strategies, preliminary campaigns may be necessary to ensure public receptivity to the initiatives.

Final Thoughts

Open waste dumping has serious environmental, social, and economic implications for Sri Lanka. It is evident that an immediate alternative to open waste dumping is required to reduce the ecological and socio-economic impacts of the practice. However, it is equally necessary to transition from a waste generating socio-ecological regime to a paradigm in which waste disposal mechanisms are minimized in favor of reuse and reduced consumption. The proposed landfill taxes and community engagement strategy attempt to tackle the problem of open waste dumping at two scales: by minimizing the waste presently transported to open dumpsites and funding a suitable alternative as well as by encouraging pro-environmental norms and the development of a shared vision toward a more sustainable, waste-free future. Ironically, the public awareness which the solution strives to achieve is the most significant challenge to its implementation.


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