Sri Lanka's Plastic Problem

A beautiful country trying to get back on it's feet
Posted on May 4, 2017 In Sri Lanka

Plastic pollution is a subject that is talked a lot about here in Sri Lanka, both by locals and by tourists. We’ve met many tourists who’s wondering about why there is so much garbage on the beaches and in the streets. They’re often asking themselves, why the Sri Lankan’s doesn’t want to keep their country clean, when they have such a beautiful country. We also hear from locals, how it is bothering them to see their beautiful country getting destroyed. It’s especially the locals that is working in the tourist industry that’s aware of the problem, because they have a different knowledge than the general locals, due to the information they get from foreigners.

So what is causing this plastic pollution in Sri Lanka? Where does all this plastic comes from? And what can we do to stop it?

How bad is it?

The amount of plastic and garbage lying on the beaches and in the streets in Sri Lanka, can often surprise visitors travelling the island. When you walk along the beach outside of the touristy areas, bigger amounts of garbage are lying around and getting into the ocean. Street dogs are scavenging for food in the garbage and kids are looking for things to take. The fishermen are often catching fish with plastic inside their bodies and are then forced to throw them out again, instead of eating or selling them. You will often see tourists that litter themselves because they feel that it doesn’t matter to get rid of their own garbage in a proper way when the countryside looks like this. This is of course a very wrong thought – it is still important to take care of your own trash though your surroundings can discourage you.

When it rains in the mountains, the water in the rivers will flow out into the ocean. The rivers are so full of garbage and plastic, which then flows out into the ocean in big streams and the ocean will then not be a nice place to swim in or look at, at this time. The biggest problem in this issue though is that it harms the marine life. Close to the shore saltwater fish are feeding in the brackish water because of the big amount of small fish and insects that comes from the riverwater and will then also feed on all the plastic from the rivers.

Do they really not care?

One of the questions that is often disgussed is, if the Sri Lankan’s really dont care about the plastic pollution in their country or if it’s maybe just is a lack of knowledge and education?

It is surprising how you’ll see people taking their empty water bottle and just throw it over their shoulder, without thinking about it for one second. We often see it in the train, where people throw everything out the window – plastic bags, bottles, cups, whatever garbage you can imagine. They don’t see it as an issue at all, that’s just how it is.

We hear from many Sri Lankan’s that they want to have a clean country and are embarrassed and tired of all the plastic and garbage lying around. Most of them just don’t know how to get rid of the garbage in a proper way.

Imagine you feel being the only one on the road that’s cleaning the beach and street in front of your house and when you wake up the next morning, there’s just as much garbage as yesterday. That’s what we heard from Lalith, who’s in charge of running a guesthouse in Kalutara, called Petters Beach Inn. This is also his beloved home and he feels that it almost doesn’t make sense to remove the garbage anymore. Right next to his home we see bigger piles of smelling garbage that’s been set on fire by other locals trying to remove it. Many of the residents simply don’t know how harmful it actually is for the environment and themselves to burn plastic without a serious filtration system. They think burning plastic is the same as burning natural things, which they are used to from back in the days where plastic didn’t exist and this was the normal way to get rid of it. We even saw people throwing garbage into the ocean, with a hope for the ocean to take it. They really don’t know better!

Who can we blame?

But who can you blame for the garbage issues in Sri Lanka? The people, the government? See, Sri Lanka have a difficult history of colonisation of the british from 1850 to 1948 and a 30 year long civil war between the singhalese and tamils, which ended in 2009. This country didn’t even have a chance to stand on it’s own feet after the colonisation, before the long civil war broke out. The civil war was a bloody war where bodies would be found in the streets everyday and almost no tourists came to visit the country. The Sri Lankan people did only have a safe country the last couple of years, which is nothing for a country when you are talking about getting the country back on it’s feet. For them garbage isn’t a thing they have been focusing on and thinking about how to dispose. They’ve had to focus more on survival and safety, than environmental issues and the world around them.

But in the last few years it has been clearer to many of the residents, that pollution is starting to become a serious problem.

What about the government?

The government have now set up a system where they collect all the garbage from the households with garbage trucks. They even want the people to divide their garbage in to different types - plastic, tin, paper and households, before it gets collected from the households.

This sounds like a good solution, but what we hear from the locals that are trying to separate their trash, is that everything is just thrown into one big pile in the truck after is has been collected. The garbage collectors aren’t taking their job that serious so if there is the smallest problem with the garbage they have to collect, they dont take it with them. That could be if a dog teared a trashbag apart or it is not packed properly because no use of containers. It makes sense that it feels a bit useless anyway.

You’ll see on the train stations that they’ve also set up 4 different trashbins next to eachother, right in the middle of the waiting area, so you dont overlook them. Plastic, metal, paper and the households. You even see separating stations on the countryside, but they are not maintained. People don’t really take them serious and when one person don’t use them correctly the rest will follow. Unfortunately.

All these new solutions from the government sounds so good and it looks from the outside like  they are going the right way. But one more question is to be answered in this government garbage disposal solution. Where does the garbage go, and how is their recycling working? What we found out so far is that they actually don’t have a solution to dispose the garbage in any way, so they just pile it up in a place close to Colombo. This pile is just getting bigger and bigger and none of it goes further on to recycling. Is it possible that this fact is true, if so what will then happen in the future? 

What about the future?

Here is our suggestions how to fight the garbage problem in Sri Lanka. The main issues we see is knowledge and recycling. To change the problem in the future, the future residents need to be tought about their own plastic waste. Educating the children and teaching them about environmental care will be the first step. They need to learn about how bad plastic is for the nature, how it doesn’t fit into the environment and how plastic over years turns into microplastic. They need to learn how their beloved wildlife gets killed when animals swallow plasticbags. They also need to learn about what they can do in their daily life to minimize their own plastic waste, seperate the trash and don’t pile plastic up and burn it.

Second is how to recycle all the trash Sri Lanka builds up. We have for many years in the western countries used power plants that turns trash into energy in an environmentally proper way, by burning the trash and using good filtration systems so the nature doesn’t get harmed. Power plants like this would be a good solution to minimize the big mountains of trash around Sri Lanka and they will get a new power source and not only through coal. We think this will be a great investment for the government, which also is getting richer now because of the tourism that’s coming back to the country.

To motivate the residents and the garbage collectors, containers for the general households would make it easier to collect the trash. The garbage collectors would know that they only need to empty these containers and the dogs wont destroy trashbags and spread the trash around. It would also be easier for the residents knowing that these containers is where they have to put their garbage, and lets just start by putting everything in the same container. Dont demotivate them by adding to many new rules at once. A last thing would be putting posters up around the country with info about how long it actually takes for the nature to dissolve general things like plasticbags, bottles, straws and so forth and how these things harm their nature. These have to be written in Singhalese and Tamil so all residents can read them.

We’ve travelled around Sri Lanka for two months, been close to locals and we feel we’ve seen Sri Lanka from both the good and the bad side. We hope this article can give people an understanding about Sri Lanka’s garbage problem and how we can help this beautiful country getting a more green future.


Since we wrote this article and left Sri Lanka, we read in the news that the fact about the never ending garbage pile outside Colombo actually is true and that it now have ended terribly wrong. Because of heavy rainfall the  the garbage pile overflowed, fell down and went as a big stream destroying nearby houses. Houses where destroyed, people drowned and died in garbage and killing at least 16 people.

Read the full newspaper here.

Don’t forget to also check out our gallery of the plastic pollution in Sri Lanka here!

Written by Mikkel & Cecilie