In the last decade, Sri Lanka has mismanaged 1.59 million metric tons of plastic waste yearly that ultimately finds its way to the ocean. Seven out of the 12 Indian Ocean rim countries are significant plastic polluters, Sri Lanka included. The recent MV X-Press Pearl container explosion has further amplified issues around marine pollution.
Though World Ocean day is celebrated in June, this tragedy has set a grim tone for Sri Lanka, sending us further back on achieving our sustainability goals. We’re already too late and promoting responsible plastic consumption and disposal has now become a critical task.
The plastic waste concern in the fishing industry
The fishing industry plays a critical role as one of the primary sources of employment and food for Sri Lankans. However, the fishing industry has been highlighted as a culprit of plastic pollution, with fishing vessels disposing of plastic into open seas.
Between 4900 to 5000 deep-sea fishing vessels are registered with the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation in Sri Lanka. Deep-sea vessels can approximately take 300 to 400 plastic bottles onboard. Each person consumes around 15 bottles, where five-liter bottles are the most common.
“In the 1900s, there were tanks in these deep-sea vessels to take water for drinking and cleaning fish. Newer boats also have this, but fishermen prefer taking water in plastic bottles to the ocean because it was convenient. This started to become a trend in the 2000s,” stated M. Janaka Prasanna, General Manager of the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation.
Due to the adverse effects floating plastic bottles have, the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation, Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG) and the Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources record each bottle taken to the sea. Each deep-sea vessel leaving the harbour is inspected, where plastic bottles taken by fishermen are required to be returned; and if not returned, fishermen are prohibited from taking their ships back to the sea.
There are recycling centers established in the Fisheries to help discard plastic waste upon return to improve plastic disposal efforts. Additionally, Eco Spindles (Sri Lanka’s largest plastic recycler) together with Coca-Cola Beverages Sri Lanka Ltd has also installed bins and collection huts to store 10,000 to 15,000 plastic bottles.
“Because we have taken strict measures, there has been a 75% reduction in marine pollution by fishermen leaving the harbours. We also need everyone’s cooperation. Suppose people engage in recreational activities, like whale-watching or going on boat tours, or vessels leaving anchorage and landing sites for fishing. When you do so, you must bring back the plastic waste taken to the sea, and dispose of them in the right bins. We need to be mindful,” encouraged M. Janaka Prasanna.
A plea for ocean conservation
Promoting mindful disposal of plastic waste amongst Sri Lankans becomes harder when waste disposed of by other nations gets washed ashore on the island’s beaches. A study presented at the 6th International Marine Debris Conference found that 93% of the trash washed ashore on Sri Lanka’s beaches was plastic material. Beaches closer to cities, rivers, or had barriers saw a more extensive buildup of plastic waste along the shore.
“Plastic waste disposed of by regional countries gets washed up on our shores, especially during extreme climatic conditions. This is worse for the Eastern and Western parts of the country according to the monsoon pattern as volumes of plastic waste are stretched along the coastline,” stated Lieutenant Commander Kasun Nuwarapaksha, former Coordinator of the Green & Blue Domain Dockyard Project, Sri Lanka Navy.
The Marine Conservation and Monitoring Unit of the Sri Lanka Navy conducts marine conservation and eco-friendly projects across the country, including beach clean-ups (daily or weekly basis), Coral re plantation, mangrove and turtle conservation projects. The plastic waste that is collected by the Navy are transported to Eco Spindles for recycling into polyester yarn and mono-filaments. Eco Spindles has also installed baling machines in the Naval bases of Trincomalee dockyard, Kalpitiya and Mannar to compress the plastic waste collected before transportation.
The efforts taken by the Sri Lanka Navy to protect the ocean from waste plastic are futile if people and businesses continue to discard plastic irresponsibly. There is an urgent need for such entities to either support or set up conservation projects that would help protect marine life and the ocean.
Giving plastic waste new life
Appropriately discarding the plastic waste is critical. Ensuring that the collected waste is recycled is even more important. Plastic bottles collected from across the island – beaches, collection centers, and the ocean – is brought into Eco Spindles’ recycling facility in Horana. This facility recycles approximately 7,500,000-9,000,000 bottles of PET plastic waste per month.
After the waste plastic is brought to the facility, it is sorted by color and type of plastic to recognize good quality PET for recycling. Next, PET plastic is bailed and sent to the washing plant to remove lids and labels, which is turned into PET flakes.
“When the flake production is done, we divide it into two categories. One is ‘Premium Grade,’ which is the best quality flake used for yarn manufacturing, and the second, for monofilament manufacturing,” stated Manoj Udawatte, CEO of Eco Spindles Recycling.
“Brands love to use yarn made out of ocean bound plastic because it reduces the waste in our oceans and the impact it has on marine life. This plastic is specifically collected from the coast and turned into oceanic yarn. We have a product called Ecos Oceanic, which is ocean bound plastic turned into polyester yarn,” Mr. Udawatte also said.
Recycling giants like Eco Spindles also leverage on technology to keep count of the plastic waste collected from the beaches. “There is an app our collectors use to input the collection numbers where Eco Spindles can trace the amount of plastic collected. If the number of plastic waste collected each year increases, then it is an indication that we are removing more waste from the beaches and sea. As citizens, we must strive to preserve the purity of our ocean,” Mr. Udawatte also stated.