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Increased deforestation, greenhouse gas emission, coal mining, chemical waste and solid waste mismanagement are some of the grave global environmental issues faced at present.

The government’s initiative to establish a Climate Change University reflects Sri Lanka’s proactive efforts towards mitigating the impacts of climate change. Despite the hardline economic measures that have been introduced in a bid to address the country’s economic woes, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to address climate change are commendable at a time when current global warming is set to exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit for the first time.

To mark World Environment Day this year, the Centre for Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development of the Open University of Sri Lanka organized a less plastic movement to collect waste found in the open environment from over 50 locationsfor recycling purposes. This included 20 beaches, 10 marine and 26 inland sites. Considering the large scale impact of plastic pollution and its after effects on the environment and future generations, the initiative is a much needed one.

Sri Lanka in its post-Covid phase had to deal with a cascade of problems, which in turn has had a severe impact on its rich biodiversity and fragile ecosystems, thereby compromising the environment. From a weakened economy to political instability, the country is facing unprecedented challenges that will cause bottlenecks in the process of environmental conservation.

In the immediate aftermath of the aragalaya at Galle Face Green, the damage and pollution caused to the grounds became quite evident; the result of a less environment-conscious society. Perhaps there were a few who tried to preserve the environment amid their call for political change. However, plastic waste ranging from polythene bags to placards was strewn across the ground, contributing to land pollution and impeding efforts towards environmental conservation. The Urban Development Authority said that the damage caused to the Galle Face Green amounted to Rs. 4.9 million.

A United Nations Special Edition Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report published in May 2023 reflected the environmental plight the world currently witnesses. “A small window of opportunity is fast closing to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees and prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis and secure climate justice for people, communities, and countries on the frontlines of climate change. Carbon dioxide levels continue to rise – to a level not seen in 2 million years. At the current rate of progress, renewables will remain a mere fraction of our energy supplies in 2030, some 660 million people will remain without electricity, and close to 2 billion will continue to rely on polluting fuels and technologies for cooking. So much of our lives and health depend on nature, yet it could take another 25 years to halt deforestation and vast numbers of species worldwide are threatened with extinction”, the report stated.

Sri Lanka needs to play a responsible role and encourage the minimal use of plastic, adopt sustainable economic cycles where recycling is taken more seriously and adhere to sustainable solid waste management principles.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in a report stressed the need for countries to adhere to a circular economy. A circular economy is deemed the most sustainable approach to accelerating progress in aspects of climate, environmental and social resilience. UNDP stated that through smarter product designs, longer periods of use, recycling and regenerating nature, a circular economy facilitates minimal waste and promotes the sustainable use of natural resources. “Besides helping tackle the problem of pollution, the circular economy can play a critical role in solving other complex challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss…,” the UNDP noted.

Another important issue is solid waste management, which needs further improvement to address the challenges encountered in plastic waste management. Stronger awareness programmes are needed on the promotion of minimal plastic use considering the long time span of plastic degeneration, which is more than 500 years. The government has approved the ban of seven types of single use plastic from June 2023. These include straws, spoons, forks and knives, plastic flower garlands, yogurt spoons and hopper trays.

According to a Sri Lanka Country Situation Report for Plastic Waste Management published in 2021 by the Centre for Environmental Justice, the government has taken multiple initiatives through policy measures, developing strategies, legislation, guidelines and necessary infrastructure to accommodate and improve the country’s solid waste management. However, Sri Lanka annually imports over 500,000 tonnes of virgin plastic. An estimated 1.59 million tonnes of plastic waste are mismanaged and half the waste ends up in canals, rivers and the ocean, endangering marine ecosystems. Currently only 33% of all plastic waste is collected, out of which only 3% is recycled nationwide, according to UNDP statistics.

Maritime plastic pollution is another area that Sri Lanka needs to focus on. From mega plastics to micro plastics, ocean beds are strewn with a plethora of plastic pollutants that are not going to degrade anytime soon. An international project funded by the European Union and compromising 30 countries is underway to mitigate the plastic waste generated through the maritime and fisheries industries in the sea bordering South India, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

The adverse effects of plastic pollution affect not only marine species but also the wild life. Many wild animals including elephants, birds and turtles have died as a result of ingesting plastic while foraging for food in the wilderness. Plastic contains serious health implications for humans with prolonged use. Plastic is a modern day vice that significantly contributes to the deterioration of people’s health and the environment.