Ajantha Perera

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Sri Lanka
Fellow Since 2005
This description of Ajantha Perera's work was prepared when Ajantha Perera was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005 .

Introduction

Ajantha Perera is working to make recycling the management strategy for solid waste in Sri Lanka. Through her enterprise, Sri Lanka is changing its solid waste practices for the betterment of the environment, economy, public health and overall conditions of the garbage workers who spend their days sifting through the nation’s rubbish.

The New Idea

Dr. Ajantha Perera is building an economic model for the profitable recycling and composting of solid waste throughout Sri Lanka, using a combination of strategies that link national and local authorities with people working in the rubbish disposal industry and the general public.
Local government authorities, who are responsible for collecting and disposing rubbish in Sri Lanka, are integral to Ajantha’s plans. Through sound economic models she illustrates that solid waste management should consist of composting and recycling primary source material. With her guidance, a growing number of local governments are running profitable composting and recycling programs. However, to fully gain the support of government authorities for recycling and waste-reduction programs, local industry involvement is crucial. Ajantha is demonstrating to local companies how they can engage in systematic recycling for long-term profits, thereby ensuring their cooperation.
Ajantha is also aware that the success of the recycling industry is dependent upon raising the role and dignity of the people closely involved with its day-to-day functioning: the garbage workers who scour mountains of waste and ride the rubbish trucks. Through close links with these persons, she is professionalizing their work, improving working conditions and giving them a voice in the overall direction and shape of the industry.
Heightening the status of garbage workers, bringing local industries on board and convincing bureaucrats to change policy in favor of recycling ultimately all effect the ordinary consumer, the source of waste. Much of Ajantha’s work is aimed at changing public behavior, such as the imposition of fines for littering, television spots on recycling and rubbish, and reintroduction of non-polythene bags into shops and school canteens. Ajantha realizes that a change in public attitude to waste disposal will not come through lecturing or moralizing. Instead, she employs realistic approaches that combine sanctions with incentives and offer workable alternatives to simply dumping rubbish. While recognizing that the success of her work will occur gradually, Ajantha is convinced that her country is becoming cleaner as popular awareness spreads, recycling industries become established, and more government officials become involved in tackling the problem.

The Problem

Haphazard disposal of solid waste is an enormous environmental problem in Sri Lanka. In Colombo alone, 600 tons of rubbish is dumped every day. Apart from being an eyesore, the piles of garbage left on the roadsides and in dumps have detrimental effects on public health. As the urban population expands, so does the volume of garbage, while waste management resources stay stagnant.

There has been little political or administrative incentive to address garbage as anything but an unavoidable problem. There are no penalties for polluters or efforts to minimize waste produced by homes or industries. Rubbish is also not separated at the source; it is collected from the roadside three times a week and deposited somewhere out of sight. Many local authorities dump rubbish in marshes or on unused paddy land: an environmentally irresponsible and expensive practice. Even after the Indian Ocean tsunami, no thought was given to recycling the vast quantities of rubble left in its aftermath. An enormous amount of reusable building material was bulldozed into waterways instead of put to good use.

The lack of initiative in waste disposal methods extends to private industry. Local governments and recycling companies have not coordinated their efforts, and the entire business of waste disposal is kept out sight and out of mind. The manual laborers working in the industry and those living near dumping grounds are scorned and neglected, suffering indignities as well as physical ailments due to their working and living conditions.

The wider public is also guilty of indifference. Wanton and endemic littering is a widespread problem, and few care about the consequences of such behavior. These practices will not end until solid waste management alternatives are offered through government and industry working together in Sri Lanka.

The Strategy

Ajantha is demonstrating to local authorities and private businesses that a cooperative approach to waste disposal can lead to greater profits, more employment, and an improved environment. Simultaneously, she is advocating national policy change and working with the media to alter public perception and behavior towards waste disposal.

Ajantha is showing local authorities that solid waste management is not about dumping, but rather about separating materials at the source and selling the bulk for recycling. She estimates that about 80 percent of the garbage collected from Sri Lankan households and businesses is organic waste that can be directly converted into compost. If garbage is separated at the source, the biodegradable mass can be easily deposited and reused, while the remaining 20 percent can be collected and a lot of it sold to recycling industries.

To date, Ajantha has convinced a number of local and national-level authorities to adopt her model, and many others have now followed suit. Commercial composting facilities have been successfully established successfully in Vavuniya, Bandarawela, Anuradhapura, Udunuwara, Nuwara Eliya and Mathugama. Because of her lobbying efforts, about 250 university graduates were recruited by the Ministry of Environment to work as district-level officers all around the country. Ajantha maintains contact with these officers and monitors the effectiveness of their work. Simultaneously, Ajantha is working towards national-level policy changes to impose sanctions on industries and persons improperly disposing of solid waste, and to prohibit the production and use of non-biodegradable polythene.

Ajantha stresses that development of commercially viable composting and recycling centres depends upon the strengthening of cooperation between government agencies and private industry. She made an important breakthrough when she convinced the Ministry of Cooperatives to buy waste from people in rural areas and transport it to recycling industries. As a result of such government support, more private entrepreneurs have gone into recycling. Some have modified their existing practices in favor of recycled materials. For instance, when the national paper corporation was running at a loss and facing closure, Ajantha lobbied the government to reimpose a 35 percent tariff on imported paper, while at the same time helping to bring the amount of waste paper going into the mill up to 1800 metric tons. The corporation began turning a sizeable profit, and it then incorporated systematic recycling of waste paper into its manufacturing procedure. Ajantha created the National Program on Recycling of Solid Waste to popularize the concept that solid waste management was about composting for organic farming and recycling paper, glass, plastics and metal, and bio-gas production. As the field expands, other businesses are finding that locally recycled plastic, glass and paper products are becoming cheaper than imported raw materials.

Among those materials that can not be composted or recycled, the polythene bag has been the main target of Ajantha’s national campaign. She calls for a ban on polythene and reintroduction of cloth, cane, and jute bags and baskets. These materials are both environmentally friendly and also come from cottage industries that employ mostly women. After many battles, an all-party parliamentary committee has been established to consider introducing the ban. Meanwhile, many local authorities have already prohibited the use of polythene bags in their areas, and some supermarket chains have introduced cloth bags instead. Others, including school canteens, have reverted to recycled paper bags. Ajantha has also worked on the introduction of laws to prohibit littering. While these efforts still face many obstacles, progress is being made and a national precedent was set when the Kandy city council introduced a fine for littering during festival time.

One of Ajantha’s earliest and most enduring concerns about effective waste disposal in Sri Lanka concern the daily collectors, transporters and sorters of rubbish. These people are on the frontline of the battle for recycling, and thus Ajantha integrates their concerns and knowledge about the nation’s trash into all areas of her work. They appear with her on television programs discussing waste disposal, and act as resources during training given to policymakers and administrators. She has equipped them with uniforms and has convinced authorities to provide them with gloves and boots. She has also addressed their health concerns by introducing a hospital referral program for sick workers and establishing washrooms in nearby dumps. She has also worked to get birth certificates for the children of these workers so that they can go to school.

The Indian Ocean tsunami, which brought destruction to the entire southeast coast of Sri Lanka, also brought new opportunities for Ajantha. She rushed to become involved in rebuilding efforts and put a stop to the mindless disposal of precious reusable debris. Within days, Ajantha effectively intervened in the chaotic aftermath to address environmental concerns. The President invited her to work in the Tsunami Task Force. Her recommendations at the policy level are being implemented regarding buffer zones and coastal protection. She has initiated a new solid waste management system throughout the affected areas. Seeking input from displaced communities, she is working with the government, local authorities and technical experts to get the maximum use from existing materials as well as to introduce working methods that will endure beyond the immediate task of reconstruction.

The Person

Ajantha’s father worked in the Foreign Service, giving his children the opportunity to live in different countries. However, Ajantha spent part of her childhood with her grandparents in rural Sri Lanka. Her grandfather was a philanthropist and natural organizer who would motivate and support others with his initiatives. He inspired Ajantha to work for the public good and serve her country. She admired the way that people in her area lived close to nature, and this early sense of harmony between people and environment led her to her vocation.

After 17 years abroad in England and Germany, Ajantha returned to Sri Lanka in the early 1990s. By this time she had obtained a doctorate in environmental sciences from a German university. She joined the staff at Colombo University and was popular with the students for her unconventional approach to waste problems. After the university terminated her position, she began working full-time to promote recycling all over the country. Since leaving the university, she has received countless national and international environmental awards.

Returning to Sri Lanka with an idyllic image of her country’s landscape still in mind, she was shocked to see garbage piled up and rotting all over the capital city. She asked herself how a people who had traditionally been very good at composting and recycling their waste had become accustomed to discarding reusable materials haphazardly. Shortly thereafter, she began applying her professional skills and knowledge to this problem.

One day Ajantha followed a line of garbage trucks to their dumping sites and was horrified by what she discovered. Amidst the unbearable stench and thousands of flies, mosquitoes, crows, pigs, and dogs competing for the contents of the dump, a few individuals were sorting garbage, separating the recyclable glass, metal, plastics and paper. She realized that they alone appreciated the value of the materials they were digging out, and began to visit them regularly. At first the ragpickers were suspicious of why she would come to the dump site; later they appreciated that her interest was genuine and began to trust her. Since then, Ajantha has spent her days preoccupied by their concerns and by challenging people to rethink what they do with their garbage.