A plastic intervention in Arugam Bay

Recycled plastic souvenirs.

The beach and the ocean are both idyllic escapes for many. It can appeal to one’s senses, from swimming in the sea to exploring sea life or pressing one’s feet against the wet beach sands. However, enjoying such pleasures becomes problematic when the beaches and ocean are polluted due to anthropogenic activities.

A study submitted to the Marine Pollution Bulletin in 2020 stated that factors contributing to Sri Lanka’s pervasive environmental issues stem from fisheries, mismanaged harbour operations, and tourism. There are people and organizations in Sri Lanka involved in mitigating and providing solutions to improper plastic waste management by reversing these misdoings.

Waste Less Arugam Bay (WLAB) is one such entity focused on building a green and sustainable tourist destination in Arugam Bay. Founded in 2018, Hendrik Konzok, founder and director of WLAB, was operating a manufacturing company, Rice and Carry, making bags and fashion accessories from upcycled materials. During this time, businesses and tourists in Arugam Bay suggested that WLAB upcycle discarded plastic bottles.

Hendrik and his team saw the value in collecting plastic bottles for recycling. WLAB was then established to educate and collect plastic waste disposed of improperly. “Tourism is one of the largest contributors to the waste plastic issue. The increase in plastic pollution in A’bay is due to the rise in the need for bottled water consumption by tourists,” stated Mr. Hendrik.

He also noted that before the COVID-19 outbreak, over 5,000 tourists traveled to Arugam Bay per day. Henry’s team would find about 5,000 – 15,000 PET bottles discarded irresponsibly onto roads and waterways. COVID-19 has drastically reduced the amount of PET waste discarded in Arugam Bay, owning to a drop in tourism and island-wide travel restrictions.

A WLAB truck is deployed every day to collect plastic from all across Arugam Bay. Waste is then brought back to the facility for bailing before sending it to Eco Spindles, Sri Lanka’s largest plastic recycler. Hendrik and other collectors like him also earn by handing waste plastics for the recycling giant.

“WLAB is an intervention. We want to educate tourists on waste management so they know the importance of ensuring that plastic waste is disposed of properly. We are in the business of changing people’s behaviour through awareness,” noted Mr. Hendrik.

Tourists are shown how bottles are compressed before transportation. They are also invited to use the machinery at the WLAB facility to make products such as surfboard wax combs and key tags. These are made out of shredded and melted plastic bottle lids, which creates value perception.

Their mission to educate does not stop there. WLAB houses a water filtration system in their facility where tourists can refill their bottles. The bottle is placed on a balance, and when it is refilled to one litre, the balance tips. Then the opposite end of the balance shows that by filling a bottle, they have mitigated using seven litres of water, 200 grams of oil, and other resources needed to manufacture one PET bottle.

“We noticed between 2018 and 2019 that businesses offering refills grew from 8 places to 20 places, which is great to see,” remarked Mr. Hendrik.

Knowing the value WLAB creates in Arugam Bay, Eco Spindles also provides recycled polyester yarn that WLAB sources to make tote bags out of recycled plastic.

“Though we are still in the product development phase, we thank Eco Spindles for sending us polyester yarn to test. This provides opportunities to the cottage and village level industries in craft, to create jobs and build livelihoods,” praised Mr. Hendrik.

Using discarded plastics, Eco Spindles produces value-added products. This includes polyester yarn for global apparel brands and monofilaments for some of the world’s biggest brush producers.

WLAB also looks at innovatively combatting pollution through a plastic credit system when plastic is collected by working with Pristine Ocean and Empower.eco.

“Any company in the world with a plastic footprint who wants to become plastic neutral can measure how many kilos they are releasing to the environment. These companies can then buy the same amount of plastic to be removed from the environment through organizations like mine. This money then enables us to do commercial level beach clean-ups in Arugam Bay,” noted Mr. Hendrik.

This is the story of an organization that is educating and offering solutions to waste-related issues. The efforts of Henry’s team will be fruitless if strides are not taken to have stronger legislation. Corporations and people need to be held accountable for the mismanagement of plastic waste. Governments and local authorities must have proper infrastructure and incentives to improve the collection and disposal of plastic. We need to be conscious, and we need your support!