Strengthening the recycling of plastics can help Sri Lanka generate value from waste

Recently, Sri Lanka’s environmental issues have seen an uptick due to circumstances, at times, beyond
our control. Additionally, the irresponsible disposal of polythene and plastics have been an unending
issue for the country; data shows that polythene and plastic comprise more than 5.9% of the country’s
urban solid waste, which exceeds 400,000 kgs daily. Considering how vital the country’s natural assets
are, it is abundantly clear that we must strive to improve our environmental and plastic waste
management practices.
Most importantly, our country has made important strides to put forth a national policy, the National
Action Plan on Plastic Waste Management 2021-2030, to responsibly manage the disposal of plastic
waste by following the 3R concept – ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.’ Recycling, in particular, can play a far
more significant role in mitigating this issue, provided that correct strategies are implemented. We must
strengthen efforts relating to recycling and the circularity of plastics, particularly by targeting ‘low-
hanging fruits,’ like polyethene terephthalate (PET) plastics.
Such efforts will additionally have positive economic consequences as well. For the foreseeable future
reducing unnecessary imports will be one of Sri Lanka’s most critical economic priorities. Imports of
plastics stand out in this regard, considering that the country can drastically reduce these imports and
save valuable foreign exchange through strengthening recycling.
PET Plastics are valuable
While plastics are highly versatile and durable, they also take years to degrade. Hence, improper
disposal of these can damage nature and wildlife. Certain plastics, such as micro-plastics, are also highly
detrimental to human health when such particles contaminate food.
To avoid such issues, we should use plastics responsibly, and it should be reused and recycled wherever
possible. PET plastics stand out in this regard because they are 100% recyclable. In addition, PET’s
potential value addition is exceptionally high since our country possesses the necessary infrastructure
for recycling and transforming it into value-added products. PET plastics are one of the most common
types of plastics used to manufacture many products, including beverage/water bottles, packaging of food and personal care products such as hand sanitisers and hair oils.
In Sri Lanka, PET bottles are recycled to produce yarn for garments and bristles used in brushes and
brooms by companies such as Eco Spindles (Private) Ltd. Hence, PET plastic waste is already being used
to generate foreign exchange earnings for the country.

At present, according to statistics, while Sri Lanka’s monthly usage of PET bottles is estimated to be
1,250,000 kgs, only 250,000 kgs or 20% of this amount is recycled. This indicates that we are functioning
far below the potential – in terms of recycling PET bottles.
Continuous improvements
To significantly improve the recycling of PET plastics, our country requires changes on multiple fronts;
these include regulation, monitoring adherence to laws, awareness and design of products.
Sri Lanka has taken steps to ban a few single-use plastics items. These tend to be most harmful, since
they’re not collectable and recyclable and differ significantly from plastic types such as PET, which are
100% recyclable. Hence, we need to further strengthen the relevant legal framework. Currently, we are
working on introducing concepts such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which holds
producers responsible for the treatment or disposal of products post-consumption.
At present, beverage giants globally demonstrate their commitment to recycling and ensuring that
consumers are educated about proper recycling practices. Companies like Coca-Cola in Sri Lanka have
voluntarily implemented programmes and impactful partnerships to recycle their PET plastic packaging.
Such efforts need to be strengthened, and EPR should be considered a critical solution.
We also need to change our practices in line with global best practices in this sphere. For instance, Sri
Lanka does not allow ‘bottle-to-bottle’ recycling in food-grade packaging, which means recycling an
entire PET bottle to produce a new PET bottle. However, this is an accepted practice in many
developed countries, allowed by even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States.
We should consider the merit of such regulation while being mindful of health concerns since
contaminated food packaging will be harmful to consumers. Perhaps the most feasible course of action is
to first allow this for non-food grade packaging (such as dishwashing liquid bottles) and monitor the
In this context, our nation also needs to adopt comprehensive mechanisms for monitoring adherence to
regulations. Even if the best standards and regulations are introduced, we must ensure implementation
and commitment to these. At present, at the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), we are populating
a database of island-wide waste collectors, with over 270+ collectors, to understand and monitor how
much and what is collected.
Public cooperation and product design
Public awareness, commitment and proactive cooperation are critical. For instance, PET bottles are
often used to store material such as kerosene and thereafter given for recycling. By this time, they are
contaminated and cannot be reused. Thus, we must motivate and incentivise consumers to return PET
bottles in good condition.

Furthermore, product design also plays a crucial role. For instance, if the aluminium foil/lid does not
come off entirely in yoghurt cups, the cup cannot be recycled. While it is likely to be a long-term effort,
we believe companies need to explore the feasibility of eco-friendly designs, either using degradable
natural material for packaging or ensure high recyclability of packaging. However, this may also require a
shift in the consumer’s mindset since it may require prioritising the environment over convenience.

We believe Sri Lanka stands to gain in saving both foreign exchange and conserving the environment by
making concerted efforts to improve and expand plastic recycling, commencing with relatively low-
hanging fruits such as PET plastics. To move forward, we require the support of the Government and
the private sector to start the implementation of such policies, although it will require a long-term vision
and initiatives. We also urge the general public to be responsible consumers and identify the platforms
to dispose of your plastic waste, as it is critical to be part of the solution.
(Ms. Sarojinie Jayasekara is the Director of the Central Environmental Authority, Solid Waste

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