Lessons from the lasses | Sunday Observer

Lessons from the lasses

‘Hemmed in’, that’s what one might call the setting. Situated in a triangular piece of land, a main road with heavy traffic on one side, a railway track and a cemetery on the other sides - constantly emitting noise and foul fumes; it may be the last place one would expect to see ‘tranquil’ minds. However, passing through the gate, you enter into a different world. Neat buildings painted in white standing among lush greenery, man and nature existing harmoniously. “Manasa sanvutha dheera,” the disciplined or tranquil mind wins, is their motto. This time, they had quietly won a battle, setting an example to many, including the policy makers of the country who still grapple with it. They had won, in the war of solid waste management, nullifying the need to create mountains of garbage. Devi Balika Vidyalaya, Colombo 8, may be the first school in the island to have ‘zero solid waste’ in its premises.

“Any school can do this,” says Principal, Ms. Pradeepa Samarasinghe. The simple technology the school used is hundred percent natural and environment friendly. Furthermore, it could be adapted to suit the environmental conditions and the financial capacity of any school, community, organization or even an individual user.

“Though we started reducing polythene and related products in school about two years ago, we still used to fill a bin provided by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), which could hold about two tractor loads of waste. The biggest issue was when the CMC refused to collect the garbage about six months back. I realized, this was the time to take positive action,” she explains. The school carried out a ‘garbage audit’ and found that its green environment alone generated about 50 to 60 kilograms of solid waste daily, in the form of fallen leaves.

The school experimented to get rid of the solid waste in different ways, and in varied methods of composting. “First, we started using them as mulch in our model tropical rainforest. However, soon we realized that we need to go beyond that,” says Chamodi Kaushalya a student of Grade 12.

That was when they had discovered a quick method of decomposition, promoted by Anuradha Wijayawardhana, an expert in the Takakura Method of Composting.

Wijayawardhana experiments on the Takakura Method, introduced to Asian countries by Dr. Koji Takakura, the Japanese researcher who discovered the technology. “It is achieved through selective culturing of friendly microorganisms in liquid form, later introduced to solids. It produces an odourless good quality compost. I was experimenting and researching for the past 3 years, to adapt the method to our environmental conditions and develop it further to get a better, smoother product,” he says.

His experiments had won accolades from JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) and undertook an experience sharing visit to Kitakyushu, Japan, to meet the inventor, Dr. Takakura. “The concept is based on reduction at the point of waste generation. It had been successfully used in waste management in cities such as, Surabaya, Indonesia and Cebu, Philippines. Sri Lanka as a developing country cannot overcome the problem of waste management using a centralized system. Systems of decentralized waste recycling such as, the Takakura Method need to be tested and applied,” opines Wijayawardhana .

He introduced the Takakura Method of Composting to varied local government agencies, civil and government organizations, private companies and so on, prior to introducing it to Devi Balika Vidyalaya.

The project at Devi Balika posed a challenge as it needed to be managed by students.

“He was a little reluctant at first, about starting it in the school. But, when he understood that we were earnest about it he gave his utmost to the project,” says PrincipalSamarasinghe about the technology provider. “We carried out initial tests. Later, we selected a design to house the compost plant. The design needed to be compatible with the school environment, could be used as a mini compost factory and a model. However, it was costing us about Rs. 1,500,000. We gathered parent support. A group of parents and the Sri Lanka Navy supported the building construction. So, there was no cost to the school.

“Then we trained teachers and students from the Bio System Technology stream to create the micro-organism cultures for composting and to produce compost from solid waste,” says Samarasinghe.

The team of 10 students from Years 12 and 13 enjoy being part of the project.

“For us, this is something new. We had to gather everyone’s ideas and weigh them out. Take decisions, implement them. We learned to support each other through acceptance and tolerance. It was a united effort,” says Dimalsha Thathsarani of Year 13.

“It was quite a surprise for me,” says Thavinya Wijesinghe of Year 12. “I finally realized the power of microorganisms. Even in this era of advanced information technology, it surprises me how much microorganisms can do and how beneficial it is.”

“Though the initial cost may be a little high,” as the method uses fermentative microorganism that could be found in fermented food such as yoghurt and pickles, “the end product is definitely worth it,” opines Chamodi Hansanadini of Year 12. “This method is safe and free of odour and leakage. Even if we give the solid waste away or put it in the bin provided by the local authority, it still rots and gives out foul odour, polluting the air wherever the bins are. The people who collect garbage and operate the bins are also human. Why should we let them suffer with our waste? This is a good solution, both, for them and us,” she points out.

The team agrees. “It is our waste. Therefore, we should find a solution on our own. Giving it to others is not a solution. It only creates unwanted problems such as, the mountain of garbage at Meetotamulla,” they point out.

The school uses all the food waste from the canteen and the hostel. All the biodegradable waste from the school garden is used in their compost plant. When they realized that chopped leaves hasten the process, the school bought a leaf chopping machine and employed Shantha Withanachchi, to operate it on a daily basis with a stipend from the School Development Society for his effort.

“I am more than happy to be able to contribute to this project,” says Withanachchi. “Earlier, we used some chemical fertilizer in the school garden. Although we used a lot of compost even then, about 20% was chemical fertilizer. However, with this project we can eliminate the use of chemicals. It is interesting to see what the trees produce, being recycled and going back to the trees, in the form of organic fertilizer,” Withanachchi points out.

Now, the compost is ready for use, the school garden, the model rainforest and plant house being the primary beneficiaries of the yield. “Now, the compost is used within the school premises. However, in the future we intend to sell the product at a nominal rate,” say Kanchana Weerakoon, Head of the Technology Section and K. Y. Suranji, Bio Systems Technology Teacher in Charge, the two pillars on which the team stands.

The team and the Principal invite other schools to start recycling their biodegradable waste using similar technology. The school’s ‘mini composting factory’ is open as a model for interested school teams.