Human Resources and institutional Development Division (HRID) primarily designs and execute straining programmes to enhance knowledge, develop skills and change attitudes of adults involved in agrarian and rural development activities with a view to improve socio economic standing of the farming community. The clients of HRID training programmes belong to a broad range of higher officials and field officers of government organizations and NGOs involved in the development activities in the rural sector, farmer leaders, representatives at grass root level community based organizations and ordinary farmers. Broadly the division is involved in the following activities:
The training activities of the Institute are coordinated by this Division. Its staff includes Research and Training officers, Audio Visual Technicians and the other support staff. The expert services of research officers of other divisions are solicited for special training programmes. Apart from the tailor made training programmes scheduled in annual training calendar, HRID also designs training courses to meet the specific needs of clients. The main training areas of HRID are listed below:
Polythene bags and lunch sheets: problem solved?
Polythene bags and lunch sheets: problem solved?
The media reported of a total government ban on the polythene, “Sili Sili”, grocery bag and the humble lunch sheet in September 2017. While some applauded the step, pointing to the detrimental effects of polythene waste on the environment; others protested, stating the lack of alternatives and the effect of the ban on their livelihood. Almost two years on, has Sri Lanka been weaned from its reliance on polythene?
Researchers at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) had some interesting findings to report following an extensive study on the situation following this “polythene ban”. They had collected information from government institutions, non-governmental organisations, material researchers, major foodstuff producers, polythene manufacturers, supermarket chains, grocery shops, food vendors, entrepreneurs, plastic collectors and recyclers as well as the general public. Overall, about 1400 individuals had been interviewed in this study which was largely focused in the Western Province.
What exactly are these new laws?
According to the law, as of 1st September 2017, manufacturing, trading and use of all polythene lunch sheets has been banned (Gazette number 2034/34). Additionally, the law states that grocery bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) is prohibited from being produced and sold (Gazette number 2034/35). Which means, that all lunch sheets used in Sri Lanka should be made of a non-polythene biodegradable material, while grocery bags must be manufactured using low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or other (preferably biodegradable) substance. Even though, manufacturers had apparently shifted to producing starch based lunch sheets; that naturally decompose within a relatively short period after disposal, the main shift in grocery bag production was from HDPE to an equally non-degradable LDPE. But, it appeared that the public had been largely misinformed regarding this situation, as the study found 31% of the surveyed public assuming the newer grocery bags to be biodegradable, while 41% being unsure about its nature.
Breaking bags and leaking sheets
It was widely reported that the grocery bags available following the ban, were of inferior strength, requiring the use of double bagging to do the task of a single HDPE bag used before. Sixty-seven percent of the consumers interviewed in the research had pointed this issue, while 74% of the supermarkets had reported higher bag consumption than before due to this problem. According to manufacturers of grocery bags, compared to the previously used HDPE, LDPE based bags; used at present, were not only of lower strength, but also incurred a higher production cost while also being more difficult to recycle after use.
A similar issue was raised with regard to the new lunch sheets by 74% of the food vendors surveyed. They complained that these lunch sheets were easily damaged, leading to leaking of wrapped food while also making the wrapping process more difficult compared to the polythene sheets used before.
The quality of the newer grocery bags had resulted in an apparent increase in polythene bag use and the higher price of alternative products for grocery bags and lunch sheets has made the shift to eco-friendlier options less attractive. Basically, the ban appeared to have resulted in the exact opposite of what was intended. Therefore, it is not surprising that 60% of those interviewed in this study considered the “polythene ban” to be a failure. Only 20% was of the opinion that it was effective.
Cheaper to cheat
All polythene grocery bag producers had to convert their machinery to suite LDPE based production with an estimated expense of around 400,000 Rupees per machine. Even though the government had promised to reimburse 50% of this cost, the manufactures complained that this payment was made only for a single machine, while those with more than one machine had to bear the total cost for the remainder by themselves.
Another aspect uncovered in the study was the prevalence of “black market” polythene lunch sheets which sometimes pass off as biodegradable ones. This was a major concern raised by manufacturers of biodegradable lunch sheets, as they have to compete with lower priced fakes that undermine the environmental benefits of the imposed regulations. The presence of polythene lunch sheets in the market was further confirmed by the finding that 25% of the food vendors were still using LDPE sheets in their shops and stalls when serving and wrapping food.
Enforcement of the law by the government would play a major role in making the “polythene ban” effective. According to the Central Environmental Authority an increasing number of inspections and raids had been carried out at retail shops, supermarkets and manufacturing facilities to detect illegal polythene products. These have resulted in a large number of confiscations, issuance of fines and prosecutions on those found to be in possession of unauthorised grocery bags and lunch sheets. Yet, the researchers found quite a few limitations in the processes used in the detection of illegal products. The government has to rely on the importation certificates confirming legitimacy of the raw materials used in the manufacturing process, while having only limited resources and methods to check for banned substances in the finished products. It was also identified that the government sector, at present, has no laboratory facilities to test for degradability of material, so as to confirm that the ultimate aim is fulfilled by the manufacturer.
Another dimension of polythene waste is the recycling process. Collection and recycling of plastics (including polythene) is a business that has the potential to minimise environmental damage while leading to income generation for many. The study was able to find that the amount of plastic waste generated per year by a single Sri Lankan on average is around 11 kilograms. Not only does this point to the immensity of its possible environmental impact, but also of its potential to become an abundant raw material source for the recycling industry. When attempting to interview plastic collectors and recyclers registered at the Central Environmental Authority, it was found that 42% of those contacted had given up the business. Of those who were still functioning 86% complained that there was minimal assistance or encouragement by the authorities for continuing and improving their industry. Unless there is economic viability and a sufficient amount of easily accessible material, the waste collection and recycling sector would gradually ‘degrade’ overtime. It would be in the best interest of the authorities (local and national) to promote and maintain this sector by formally incorporating it into the waste management process.
Can’t we use something else?
The new laws may have expected to push the consumers towards more environmentally friendly alternatives for grocery bags and lunch sheets. With entrepreneurs that have introduced and attempted to promote material and products as substitutes have expressed their disappointment with authorities who have done little in terms of providing support. This was clear with what was observed in the study, where very few alternative products were found to be available and in use. Of those that are being visibly utilised as alternatives for lunch sheets in the Western Province, the most prominent were Banana leaves, Areca nut leaves (“Kolapath”) and Lotus leaves used by food vendors. Yet, the researchers found that 97% of food vendors still relied on the use of lunch sheets in their business. The most common alternatives identified for polythene grocery bags at super markets and grocery stores were fabric bags, paper bags and bags made of starch based biodegradable plastics. Some of the main reasons why these alternatives for lunch sheets and polythene bags had failed to become popular included the disadvantages they have in terms of price, availability and convenience.
When attempting to identify most favoured alternative for polythene shopping bags, the study found that cloth bags were rated higher than others due to its physical qualities while the high price acted as the main limit for its popularity.
One of the suggestions made by the researchers in this regard was the encouragement of establishing public-private partnerships for manufacturing innovative eco-friendly substitutes, aimed at bringing down their prices while popularising the products.
Suggestions for going forward
An interesting finding prominently pointed out in this research was the presence of an act that would have been a major contributor to the excessive use of polythene grocery bags and lunch sheets over the years. Consumer Affairs Authority Act, No. 9 states that: “no trader shall at the time of selling of goods levy any charge directly or indirectly on consumers for any type of bags/wrappers issued to the consumers”. Amendment or abolition of this act could pave the way for retailers and food vendors to introduce a system of charging the customer for any bags or wrappers they request, while competitively promoting the use of biodegradable alternatives and even the reuse of polythene bags. Even though some supermarkets in Sri Lanka has already introduced commendable steps such as providing loyalty card points and discounts for bringing your own reusable bag, the researchers suggest taking it a step further to bring in a points system for reusing your old plastic bags as well. If the government could intervene and negotiate the use of such incentive programmes across all supermarket chains in Sri Lanka, it could go a long way in limiting the consumption of plastic bags in the country.
A method already implemented in other countries and discussed previously in Sri Lanka for managing plastic waste is ‘polluter pays, by way of extended producer responsibility’. In this approach, producers are held responsible for the plastics and packaging they manufacture or use within the entire lifecycle of the product. The producers themselves would have to take steps to establish a system that recovers and manages the waste generated form their product. Along with this, the researchers stress the importance of establishing a proper packaging policy for industries in the country. This would standardise the methods and material used in packaging, so that their recovery and recyclability would improve, in addition to other aspects, such as hygiene.
Sri Lanka has a long way to go before polythene waste management, let alone overall waste management, reaches a satisfactorily sustainable state. It is hoped that authorities would implement future steps in this regard in a more rational manner; with prior consulting with experts, while taking into consideration opinions of relevant stakeholders and openly communicating the approach and its basis to the public, so as to avoid the shortcomings of the “polythene ban” of 2017.
Sangeeth Prasad Fernando
Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute
At a Focus Group Discussion with Stakeholders
At a Focus Group Discussion with Stakeholders