As tourism grows PET menace looms large


By Suren R. Mirchandani


Tourism arrivals are expected to increase significantly over the next few years as Sri Lanka positions itself as one of the worlds best leisure destinations, from a base of approximately 500,000 per annum to 2.5 million per annum. This rapid influx of visitors will place immense pressure on the local environment, particularly on waste buildup and management by local government bodies.

The potential for irreversible damage to Sri Lanka’s environment and reputation is very real and significant as evidenced by the already visible degradation and pollution in pristine environments such as Kalpitiya, Trincomalee and Arugam Bay. A significant increase of tourists will make an already bad situation much worse. The goal of this brief paper is to provide a case for a solution that will not only solve and reverse the situation at these pristine locations, but in doing so, to also provide local income benefits to local government and the community at large.

The problem…

Tens of thousands of PET bottles and plastic refuse today pollute our beaches. The local government lacks the resources or the skills to effectively deal with the buildup of PET. On average a PET bottle takes 1,000 years to degrade. PET bottles harm the marine environment, clog up river ways and are a breeding ground for disease. The PET menace is very visible all across Sri Lanka, with no proper disposal, recycling or system of management. Local communities take little interest in tackling this menace.

In comparison to countries such as Thailand with 30 million visitors per year, our beaches look very dirty with barely 500,000 visitors per year. It is clear that if Sri Lanka is to compete with mature, developed world class destinations there is urgent need to address the problem of PET and plastic pollution.

The PET menace –
environmental impact…

The lack of purified water suitable for drinking at frontier tourism locations drives demand for bottled water in PET bottles. The PET bottles have direct and indirect environmental consequences:

1. Direct impact

Once used, tourists discard these bottles in cabanas and restaurants. The local communities do not have the resources to collect and recycle the significant quantities of waste generated. Instead the bottles are dumped into the sea or water bodies such as lakes, creeks and rivers. Even remote locations such as Peanut Farm close to Arugam Bay there is a unsightly build up of "garbage" - plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other trash that tourists have to literally walk through while accessing the beach – hardly the sort of experience that will generate a positive feedback on sites such as Trip Advisor which can make (or break) a destination.

2. Indirect impact

Water is trucked from factories situated far away from the delivery area, contributing to several tons of CO2 emissions and pressure on road infrastructure. The problem is exacerbated when one considers that the delivery vehicles return empty. In addition to pollution this adds tremendously to product cost thereby depriving retail traders of better margins. It is a tragedy of some proportin that we need to use trucks to bring water to a remote part of Sri Lanka when water is abundant everywhere.

Bringing about
fundamental change…

It is apparent that unless a solution is soon found, our beaches may be overwhelmed with environmental degradation that will be difficult to reverse. A multi step approach is recommended:

1. Waste audit: Understand and quantify the problem

Commission a comprehensive waste audit in the target areas. A number of NGOs and companies with expertise in this field are available in Sri Lanka. A waste audit provides the basis for all future action, as the report will quantify the amount and types of waste being created, sources, existing disposal and recycle systems if any, and a minimum action plan. At all stages of this audit, the community leaders are engaged to ensure inclusive participation. The audit is also used to solicit longer term funding and technical support for the project goals.

2. Education for long-term success

The audit is followed by an education programme conducted by the same experts, engaging the local community at various levels on the benefits of waste management for preservation of their livelihoods, the health benefits of waste management and recycling, and other simple tools. Without long-term support from the local population, no system can be self sustaining.

"To plan for 10 years plant a seed. To plan for a 100 years, teach the people" -Confucius

3. Localize for a long term solution

The vision is to provide a practical solution that resolves pollution while at the same time providing parallel economic benefits that will reinforce local community commitment to the project. The solution involves the replacement of PET bottles with clean drinking water bottled at location itself and managed by the local government authority as an income and employment and income generation scheme.


Provide the local government authority with a self-contained solar powered reverse osmosis plant to produce drinking water bottled at site. This project will enable the local authority to generate income that would otherwise be made by the large water suppliers in Colombo. By using recyclable glass bottles, the local authority can not only provide local employment (for the filling, delivery and pickup of bottles) but also provide local retailers with water at a much lower cost (no long distance transport) and hence higher margins. All this while the local and larger environment will be spared direct and indirect pollution generated by the PET water supply chain. The chain will be broken and water provided locally, by the community, to their visitors, while preserving their environment. The benefits are summarized below:

1. Environmental

= Direct impact: reduction/elimination of PET bottle menace

= Indirect impact: reduction/elimination of CO2 emissions in delivery

= Long term impact: maintain pristine nature of the destination for the community

2. Income for local authority

= Income from water sales to reinforce commitment to the environment

= Localize income that would otherwise fall into the hands of the water suppliers

= Empower the authority to initiate other projects to preserve the environment

3. Employment

= Direct employment to operators of bottling plant

= Direct employment to operators of delivery system

4. Improved profits

= By eliminating trucking costs and corporate margins, local retailers will make more money from water sales


The past few years have seen a number of companies and organizations around the world develop a number of alternate technologies to produce drinking water using solar energy. Our nominated consultants will study the suitability of each solution for the target area.

Examples of differing technologies include:

Solar Water Energy India

On-shore solar distillation systems are contained in steel or concrete tanks over the ground and process ground or brine water. Solar energy increases the temperature within the water production structure, with minimum use of fossil fuels. The desalination process continues 24/7. The smallest plant will produce 230 m3/day. The average annual return on investment is 35%

Global Rainwater Harvesting Collective

In September 2006 in the small village of KOTRI bordering the Sambhar salt lake the first ever Reverse Osmosis plant has started functioning off solar power producing 600 litres of potable water (450ppm) from brackish saline water measuring TDS 4000-6000 ppm. The first village based plant of its kind in the country - standard reverse osmosis - standard reverse osmosis

For the purpose of this project, we will select a commercially solar array powered reverse osmosis plant capable of producing up to (add details) liters of drinking water per day, together with secondary treatment systems such as UV treatment or particulate filters.


A stock of 6,000 glass bottles should be sufficient to enable a ready supply of water.

Empty bottles will be collected from the delivery area whenever fresh supplies are dropped off. The authority will employ people to bottle and deliver water to local shops. Tourists can use the bottle (on which a nominal deposit is taken) to replace with a full bottle at any time. The installation of an industrial dishwasher may be sufficient to ensure sterilization of the bottles before refilling.


By eliminating "corporate margins" and the high cost of long-distance trucking the goal is to localize profits – bringing down the cost of water to the retailers and enhancing local margins.


Required for –

1) Waste Audit

2) Education programme

3) Reverse Osmosis water plant (solar powered)

4) Bottles and cleaning equipment

5) Waste receptacles and colour coded bins in key areas

6) Transport for collection and delivery of bottles

Potential funding sources-

1) Tourism Development Levy Fund

2) NGO’s focused in this area

3) International grants

4) Government funding to local authority.

Suren Mirchandani is a director at favourite group, the founder and vice chairman of Deccan Lanka and a non executive director at Fairway Holdings. Expect his monthly column on entrepreneurship and business, with a focus on the broad impact of the economic activity and investment taking place in Sri Lanka today.

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