Haphazard disposable of non degradable waste reaches a disturbing high : Emissions from plastics, a burning issue | Sunday Observer

Haphazard disposable of non degradable waste reaches a disturbing high : Emissions from plastics, a burning issue

Prevailing weather conditions of heavy rains followed by bright sunshine has proliferated mosquito breeding sites islandwide, hiking fears of a dengue outbreak. To avert a possible epidemic of the deadly disease, the Health Ministry has launched a massive cleaning up campaign combined with other mosquito control activities. Joining hands with them several members of the civil society have also volunteered their services to prevent the spread of dengue. While this is a welcome move, health officials are worried that if these community based programs are unsupervised and waste disposal is not carried out in a safe and environmentally suitable manner, it could result in serious health impacts on the public.. One of the biggest dangers in this regard, is the haphazard disposal of plastics which are either buried or burned in open fires for lack of alternative options.

Plastics are everywhere. At least one or more plastic product can be found today, in every home- from the humblest village hut to the affluent urban home.

Convenient, affordable, versatile, they serve a zillion purposes. Large commercial kitchens use them to store food and deliver them. Drink manufacturers store their beverages in them.

Pharmaceutical companies use them to store medicines. Mothers of schoolchildren, pack sandwiches, short eats and lunches in them. Working mothers use plastic feeding bottles when they switch from breast milk to artificial feeding formulae.

The biggest users of all are perhaps the Toy Makers. Across the world small, medium and large scale toy manufacturers rely heavily on plastics for their ever widening range of toys. Convenient to carry around and more durable than glass containers, plastic it seems has come to stay in today’s world of hi technology.

To many of its users, the benefits of using it for their specific purposes, also outweighs negative aspects that could arise from its use.

“This is a wrong belief which needs to be corrected,” says a health expert on the subject, adding, there is plenty of scientific evidence and facts to prove how the negative aspects of plastic use, far outweigh its benefits.

To quote Senior lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Kithmini Sidewa, whose research on the subject was published in the official newsletter of Toxicology & National Poisons Information Centre, National Hospitals, “ Manufacturers often add different chemicals to plastics to give them the exact characteristics they are looking for, like flexibility, strength and reduced production costs.

Burning plastics

These components can include phthalates, bisphenol A ( BPA), polybrominated diphenyl ethers ( PBDE) and tetrabromobispenol A ( TBBPA), all of which are endocrine disruptos ( EDs) and each affects different elements of hormone disruption ( e.g.inducing estrogen like activity, thyroid hormone homeostassis disruption, anti-androgens etc). Also, some chemicals are made of monomers, which have known mutation inducing and cancer causing qualities.

Yet other compounds contain toxic metals. These chemicals which are odourless and tasteless can enter the human body in any number of ways and at dramatically different levels. Children are at greatest risk since they consume more for their size.

Many of them also seep into the environment during production process or as waste, entering our waterways and other areas where they eventually make contact with humans”. So how does burning plastic waste affect our health?

Most dangerous

Responding to our question, Head of the National Poisons Information Centre, Dr Waruna Gunathilake told the Sunday Observer, “We have recently received several calls from members of the public complaining of health issues as a result of household waste being burned in bon fires in their neighbourhoods. While burning of any kind of degradable waste should not be encouraged, burning plastics which are non degradable and release harmful chemicals can aggravate existing health conditions and lead to cancer in the long run. Incinerating plastic is a very serious health hazard.”

“ Mainly because of two very toxic chemicals that are released on incineration, namely, Dioxene and Furon, which affect human organs. Current research indicates that burning plastic waste can increase the risk of heart disease, asthma, and emphysema.

It can also cause rashes of the skin, nausea, headaches, and most serious of all, damages to the kidney, liver and the reproductive system.: He further noted, “The burning of polystyrene polymers such as foam cups, meat trays, yoghurt cups, releases styrene. Styrene gas can be readily absorbed through the skin and lungs.

At high levels styrene vapour can damage the eyes and mucuous membranes. In the long run, it can affect the nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, weakness and depression.”

According to Dr Gunathilake, the most dangerous emissions can be caused by burning plastic containing organchloride based substances like PVC. “When such plastics are burned, harmful quantities of dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemicals, are emitted. They are carcinogenic and hormone disruptive and accumulate in body fat, and thus, mothers give it directly to their babies via the placenta. Dioxins also settle on crops and waterways and eventually, end up in our food , accumulate in our bodies and are passed on to our children,” he warned. Plastics should not end up in compost pits since it takes several years for a single yogurt cup or sili sili bag to degrade. Instead, he advises householders to separate plastics and send them to a re-cycling plant .

Meanwhile, he gives the public the following advice: “ Don’t burn plastic in your home garden, or in your neighbourhood . Breathing its toxic fumes can lead to several serious health issues.”

Who is responsible?

This is the question to which the public now demand answers, given the lack of resources and infrastructure to get rid of household waste in most parts of the country. “

Where should we dump solid waste such as, used plastic containers, rigi foam boxes, sili sili bags and lunch sheets?”, asked Mrs Jayanthi Hasani, a housewife in Borella.

“ Even when packed separately, our garbage bags containing used plastics are not collected by the dustbin cleaners because they say it is not their responsibility, but some other authority”.

So whose responsibility is it? Who is responsible for safe waste collection and disposal?

A survey in 2000 on solid waste management in the Jaela area found that the responsibility for waste disposal is collectively shared in Sri Lanka by the Government, 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 national level, the Ministry of Forestry and Environment (MFE) and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) are responsible for policies regarding solid waste. It also noted that, important laws and regulations on 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 providing suitable dump sites. At present, the city has only one main dumping ground at Bloemandhall which has already reached sky high, with nearby residents complaining of adverse health impacts from its toxic fumes. With no proper infrastructure and limited resources, waste is haphazardly dumped on pavements, near waterways, and in lanes. Thus, waste disposal is likely to remain a stinking, simmering, issue for sometime at least.

Authorities however, must realize that unless this problem is resolved soon, despite all our efforts to clean our cities and bring back their pristine beauty, there will be garbage piles in every street corner, attracting crows, cats, dogs and insects, not forgetting the dengue mosquitoes. The existing laws will have little or no impact on a public ready to shift the blame on the authorities in charge of waste disposal. Worse still, the burning of solid waste such as plastics in the open, will continue to adversely impact on the health of all those exposed to its toxic fumes.

So what is the solution?

Minimize using plastics. When storing and delivering food and drink, use glass, metal , wood or paper ( like paper cups and plates instead of Styrofoam.) is the advice given by an expert committee on waste disposal and management . Their advice should not be taken lightly when considering the following global statistics released by a group of environmentalists:

* Between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year.

* Less than 1% of these bags are re-cycled.

* Millions of tons of plastic bottles , bags, and garbage have thus found their way to the world’s oceans and are leaching toxins into the water, posing a severe hazard to wildlife, both, on land and on water.

* More than 250 species of fish, sea turtles, marine birds, whales and dolphins have suffered from eating or becoming entangled in marine debris from plastics.