Garbage in Sri Lanka
An Overview of Solid Waste Management in the Ja-Ela Area

Levien van Zon (
Nalaka Siriwardena

October 2000
Integrated Resources Management Programme in Wetlands (IRMP), Sri Lanka
Free University of Amsterdam (VU) / Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), The Netherlands

Files available for downloading:

Both PDF-files were meant for double-sided printing or on-screen viewing.
For a summary of the report including full conclusions & recommendations and references, see below. The acronyms used in the report are listed here.


1. Introduction

1.1 About this survey

The aim of this survey is to describe the various aspects of solid waste and its management in the Ja-Ela Divisional Secretary (DS) division, and to investigate the possibility of a participative community project in waste-management under the Integrated Resources Management Programme in Wetlands (IRMP).

1.2 IRMP

IRMP is a five-year project of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), which currently operates in the wetland area of Muthurajawela Marsh and Negombo Lagoon. It aims to develop a workable model for participative and integrated management of wetlands in Sri Lanka. Activities are first run as pilot projects, to see whether they work and how they can best be implemented.

1.3 The area

The Ja-Ela DS Division lies in the Gampaha District of the Western Province, and is located just north of Colombo. It covers some 65 km2, has about 190,000 inhabitants, and is subdivided into the Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) areas of Kandana, Ragama, Batuwatta and Dandugama, and the Ja-Ela Urban Council (UC) area. Both its population density and population growth are relatively high. A small strip on the western side of the division is part of the Muthurajawela Marsh.

1.4 The waste problem

Infrastructure and resources for waste collection are lacking in most parts of the country, so uncontrolled scattering and dumping of garbage is widespread. There are no proper facilities for final disposal of most of the solid waste produced by households and industries. Waste that is improperly dumped can impede water-flow in drainage channels, and provides breeding places for disease vectors such as rats and mosquitoes. Open dumping sites in natural areas cause pollution of ground- and surface-water, and will facilitate encroachment. Open burning of waste at low temperatures is also widespread. It contributes to atmospheric pollution and may cause serious health problems.

1.5 Government organisation

The government levels in Sri Lanka include the National Government (the President, Parliament, and the Ministries and their departments, agencies, boards, etc.), Provinces (headed by Provincial Councils), Districts (headed by a Government Agent), Divisions (headed by a Divisional Secretary), Pradeshiya Sabhas (PS) and Municipal and Urban Councils (MC and UC), and Grama Seva Nildaris (GN). The PS, MC and UC are assigned a Public Health Inspector (PHI) by the Ministry of Health, who usually also takes care of solid waste management. At the national level, the Ministry of Forestry and Environment (MFE) and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) are responsible for policies regarding solid waste.

1.6 Legal Aspects

Important laws and regulations with regard to solid waste are the National Environmental Act, the Pradeshiya Sabha Act, and the Urban Council and Municipal Council Ordinances. The Environmental Act restricts the emission of waste materials into the environment, and states the responsibilities and powers of the CEA. The local Government Acts and Ordinances state that the local authorities are responsible for proper removal of non-industrial solid waste, and for providing suitable dumpsites.

1.7 Life cycles

Organic waste consists of materials that will naturally degrade within a reasonable time period. It can be composted or converted into methane (biogas), and some of it can be fed to animals.

Paper and cardboard waste are essentially also a form of organic waste. When to too dirty, they can be recycled or re-used (e.g. for wrapping, as bags or envelopes, and for writing on the unused side). When dirty, they could be composed, but caution may be needed because of the printing ink.

Glass can be recycled, and glass bottles can be re-used. Other silicate (stony) materials can be used in things like road construction, but might first need to be grinded.

Most metals can be recycled. Care should be taken with dumping, as heavy metals can cause serious pollution.

Plastics will degrade naturally, but only very slowly. Addition of certain materials during production can speed up this process. Some types of plastic waste (mostly PET, PE and PP) can be recycled mechanically, but will have to be sorted and cleaned. Tertiary (chemical) recycling of plastics is also possible, and can often handle more contaminated waste, but these techniques are not yet widely available.

2. Methodology

2.1 Interviews

To get more insight into the workings and organisation of solid waste management, interviews were conducted with national and local government agencies, "town-cleaning" firms, waste resellers and local residents. The reliability and completeness of the information obtained through these interviews might in some cases be questionable, so care should be taken in its interpretation.

2.2 Collection survey

We accompanied a group of town cleaners on their morning shift, to gain familiarity with their methods, to get an idea of the composition and amounts of collected waste and to see which materials are kept apart by the cleaners for reselling.

2.3 Dumpsite survey

The main dumpsites in Ja-Ela DS were visited and detailed observations were made (see appendix IV). Quantitative measurements of any kind proved difficult, so were not really performed. The size of the sites was estimated.

2.4 Measurement of waste production

Waste production and composition were measured for 15 households, half of which were located in a more "rural" area (Delature), and half in a more "urbanised" area (Ekala). The households were further divided into two or three income groups. Waste was collected four times over three weeks, sorted into several material types and weighed. Waste from some retail-shops and eating-houses was also collected and analysed. The results obtained are mostly indicative, as precision and representation of the measurements leave something to be desired.

3. Survey Results

3.1 Waste production

The reliability of the figures is somewhat questionable, due to small sample-size and large variation. Collection by the households might also have been selective, leading to a slightly biased result.

Waste production of the households measured seems to be in the range of 100-300 g per day, not including waste materials that were recycled or re-used. Households in more rural areas often seem to use their organic waste as animal feed (not necessarily for their own animals) or for composting.

The average composition of the household waste we measured (by weight), seems to be roughly as follows: 15%-30% plastics, 30%-40% paper, 0-30% organic fraction and 10%-30% rest-fraction. The plastic and paper fractions make up most of the volume of household waste, but can be significantly compressed. The organic fraction makes a relatively large contribution to the total weight, due to its high density and water-content.

Packaging materials make up more than half of the plastic and paper fractions, both by weight and by volume. A significant part of the paper-fraction is already made of recycled materials. Only a small part (less than half) of the plastic fraction would be easy to recycle mechanically. Most packaging materials produced in Sri Lanka do not state the material type.

Restaurants and eating-houses produce a lot of food and kitchen remains, which are usually collected by local pig farmers, who use it as animal feed. Retail shops produce mostly packaging waste.

3.2 Waste collection

Some relevant information on the waste collection resources of the various local authorities is listed in table 3.3. Cleaning of (main) roads and markets has been recently privatised in Kandana PS and Ja-Ela UC, and seems to function better than the former public cleaning systems.

Waste collection and cleaning is mostly paid out of assessment tax and trade licences.

Frequent cleaning and collection of roadside waste is mostly restricted to main roads and town areas. Cleaning of the roadside drains is included in the duties of the local authority cleaners, but is currently insufficient.

The cleaners proceed along their daily route, sweeping and shovelling up roadside litter and garbage (including a lot of sand and stones), and throwing it in a tractor-trailer or handcart.

There seems to be an increasing tendency, especially among shop owners and higher-income households on the town-edges, to use bags or bins, instead of just dumping the garbage along the roadside. Centrally placed garbage barrels, which are provided by the private cleaning companies in Ja-Ela and Kandana, are also effective, although many barrels get stolen.

Plant material makes up a very large part of the collected municipal waste. Estimates give around 60%-90% for the organic fraction (by weight).

3.3 Waste disposal

Households generally dump or burn their waste materials. Dumping is usually done in a shallow pit in the ground, along the roadside, on a nearby dumpsite, in low-lying marshland or in waterways or waterbodies. Dumped material is often periodically burned.

Local authorities usually dump their collected waste on privately owned land. Finding suitable sites is difficult, and current sites are therefore often over-used. Officially, waste is not burned by the authorities after dumping, but it does happen.

No regulations or guidelines have been made to govern dumping of solid waste by private companies or industries. Uncontrolled dumping of (hazardous) industrial waste and of slaughterhouse waste is problematic, and poses a potential health risk. Other problems with disposal include smell, prolonged exposure to noxious gases from the burning of waste, scattering of waste materials, presence of potential container habitats and ingestion of plastic bags by cows, pigs and other animals. Serious water pollution (mostly eutrophication) was observed in a few places, but does not (yet) seem widespread. Measurements are needed, however.

There do seem to be any usable laws or regulations that deal with unauthorised dumping of non-hazardous solid waste. Sometimes the Nuisance Ordinance is used by local authorities to stop undesired dumping.

3.4 Re-use and recycling

Especially households in more rural areas re-use organic waste as animal-feed and/or for composting. Pieces of cloth are also sometimes re-used. In more urbanised areas, re-use of waste materials seems virtually non-existent.

Town cleaners seem to keep several materials separate from the rest of the collected waste. Especially corrugated cardboard, metal cans, scrap metal, glass bottles, firewood and some food remains are re-used or sold to waste buyers for recycling.

Waste buyers (re-sellers) often have small shops, where they buy, sort and store things like (news)paper, corrugated cardboard, scrap metal, glass, barrels, plastic containers, sacks and sometimes black-coloured plastics. These materials are obtained from companies, town cleaners, house-to-house collectors, scavengers and other individuals, and are either sold locally for re-use or are sold to recycling-companies, usually through a middleman.

House-to-house collectors buy mostly (news)paper, glass and metal from households, and sell these to the re-sellers at a small profit.

3.5 Public awareness and attitude

The results below might not be representative, because of the small sample group and superficiality of the answers.

Many people do not seem aware of the (potential) environmental problems caused by disposal of solid waste. Garbage is often only seen as a problem because of practical reasons.

Most people seem to know about health problems (especially mosquitoes) relating to garbage, from school education or media. The extent and depth of this knowledge was not determined.

Waste materials that can still be sold or re-used are not seen as waste, but as something which still has value. However, it is usually thrown away when not collected.

Proper collection (and dumping) is seen by many residents as a solution to garbage problems.

3.6 The role of the Government

Lack of resources makes it difficult for local authorities to do anything about the waste problem other than clean the main roads. According to them, the National Government should provide the necessary legislation and resources.

According to the CEA, waste management is a task for the local authorities. The CEA have neither a license-system, nor any regulations, standards or guidelines for solid waste disposal (except for some hazardous materials). The relevant sections of the National Environmental Act have not been implemented. Measures of National Government agencies to help solve the waste-problem seem currently limited to some awareness-material, mostly for schools.

3.7 Future policy

The Ministry of Forestry and Environment is working on a National Strategy for Solid Waste Management (NSSWM), aimed at municipal solid waste. A three-year implementation plan has already been made. Responsibilities are to be shared between national Government bodies (Ministries, the CEA, etc.), local authorities, the private sector, and the general public. Implementation is co-ordinated through committees at national, provincial and local levels. Details and the matter of funding are still unclear.

Waste reduction is mostly envisaged through public awareness and regulation. Re-use and recycling are to be promoted, partly through tax-measures. Properly engineered landfills are to be set up on a regional level and are to be shared between various local authorities.

4. Conclusions and Recommendations

Shown here is the full text of the chapter from the report, not a summary.

4.1 Main conclusions


Figure 4.1 The main product- and solid-waste streams in the Ja-Ela DS Division.


Waste production Waste collection Waste disposal Re-use and recycling

4.2 Recommendations

Reduction Recycling Disposal Awareness and instruction

Proper awareness and instruction campaigns are needed on the effects of the current solid-waste disposal practices, and on solutions for (some of) the problems.

Awareness material and usage instructions for things like compost barrels should be suitable for the entire target group intended. This is currently not always the case, as most material produced is only suitable for better-educated people who already have an interest in the subject. If needed, various versions of the same material can be produced for different target groups.

The channels used to distribute the message should also be able to reach the entire target group. Newspapers are often only read by a small portion of the population, and each newspaper has a slightly different target group. Television is effective, but does not reach the lowest income groups. Radio is somewhat less effective, but can also reach some people with lower incomes, and especially people at work. Posters are usually the least effective, but may gain something in effectiveness when put up at places where they will be frequently and easily seen. Brochures can be very effective, but are also expensive and difficult to distribute.

Usage instructions should give clear and short instructions, preferably using additional illustrations. They should be written in simple and unambiguous language, and should also include information on what not to do.

4.3 Suggestions for local action

As waste is seen more as a practical than as an environmental problem, it will be difficult to mobilise community support for a participative waste-collection and recycling programme. Most people feel that waste management is a task for the Government, and would only be willing to take action themselves if it yields sufficient benefit. Experiences with the Arthacharaya community waste collection programme have already shown that financial benefits from selling sorted garbage are fairly low on a household level (IRMP, 2000). Therefore such a programme would only be effective in very low-income areas, where even small benefits count.

The low benefits for selling waste materials are mostly caused by the fact that one household does not produce much waste, and does therefore not get much income from selling it. This problem is avoided if the benefit is spread over fewer people. A house-to-house buyer for instance, can make a living out of buying and selling waste materials from a number of neighbourhoods (see § 3.4). His profit margin is low, but this is because the major part of the financial benefit actually goes to the households!

To start a successful and self-sustainable community/neighbourhood waste-management project, it would be most efficient to incorporate the informal collection and recycling routes that already exist. This existing system of "informal waste collection" can then be extended to include the waste materials that are currently not (sufficiently) collected and/or recycled. When implemented correctly, this could result in benefits for everyone involved (households, collectors, resellers, recyclers).

In such a system it is absolutely essential to have the support of the community. The households are the ones that have to initially sort and store the waste materials that are to be collected for recycling. Therefore to ensure co-operation, the local population must be involved in setting up the system. It is very important that they are correctly informed on proper sorting of waste materials, on composting and on management of household waste in general. For most people, the incentive for co-operation will probably be the fee for selling the waste (IRMP, 2000), and the fact that waste is now properly collected (see § 3.5), so that it is no longer their worry.

It would probably not be difficult to get support from waste buyers and recyclers, as such a project would mean an expansion of their market, by which they have something to gain. One potential problem might be that they might get more competition, which (especially considering the nature of the Sri Lankan society in this regard) might not always be appreciated.

The project would have to focus mostly on collection of paper and plastic packaging materials, and on collection and/or local re-use (composting, feeding animals) of organic waste (in areas where this is not already happening). In a proper collection system, provisions also need to be made for the rest-fraction and for hazardous waste (chemicals, etc.). This might pose a problem, as no profit can be obtained from collection and disposal of these fractions, and these activities will have to be funded somehow.

The local residents should be briefed in a workshop on how to sort waste and make compost, and also on what not to do. This last point is very important, and can help to avoid many problems. This is often forgotten: instruction briefings for many projects only seem to focus on what to do, but not on what to avoid.

Expected problems include the following:

Besides the sort of larger-scale community project suggested above, initiatives for waste collection and recycling are also possible on a smaller scale, and for a more limited target group. An example of this could be the following:

Hotels and restaurants, especially in tourist areas, produce a significant amount of plastic (PET) drink bottles. These are relatively easy to collect, store and clean, and also easy to recycle mechanically. Therefore, it might be useful to set up a kind of bottle-collection system for hotels, restaurants and guesthouses in the Negombo area. Hotels and guesthouses could have a separate bin in which tourists can deposit PET bottles. This would be good for the "environmental" image of the participating hotels, restaurants and guesthouses, and might also provide some positive publicity for IRMP.

4.4 Comments on the NSSWM

The proposed National Strategy for Solid Waste Management is fairly complete, in that it covers the entire waste-cycle from production (avoidance) through re-use, collection, recycling to disposal. This is done in a fairly integrated manner, and according to the established hierarchy of waste management. In the light of this report however, a few notes need to be made on the strategy: And finally of course, as is the case with all proposals: The plan looks good, but it is always the question if it can and will be implemented properly. The proposed three-year timeframe sounds good, but may be a bit optimistic considering previous experiences.


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(c)2000-2003, Levien van Zon (levien @