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Lanka faces looming threat to its environment from haphazard disposal of non-biodegradable face masks

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Sri Lanka’s environment is facing a looming threat owing to the haphazard disposal of millions of used face masks and personal protective equipment, reveals a recent study by the University of Kelaniya.

“Mostly, face masks are made of petroleum-based non-renewable polymers that are non-biodegradable, hazardous to the environment and create health issues. It is reported that Sri Lanka generates around 14 to 70 million of face mask waste a week,” said Prof Rangika Bandara, Director of the Centre for Sustainability Solutions of the university’s Department of Zoology and Environmental Management.

She said: “We should understand that disposable face masks which are commonly known as surgical face masks or K-95 masks contain polypropylene which is a popular kind of plastics. According to study findings, a K-95 mask contains about 9 grams of polypropylene and this value is around 4.5 gram in a surgical face mask. By looking at these numbers, it is estimated that as a country Sri Lanka emits 47-185 tons of polypropylene per week to the environment through face masks only.”

“Plastic is considered as a non-biodegradable material as it takes over 500 years to get rid of it from the environment. Disposing facemasks inappropriately on different land surfaces will gradually end up in rivers, lakes, ponds, forests and other vegetation, agricultural fields and finally in oceans by washing them off with runoff and surface flooding and also by wind,” she said.

Prof Bandara said that disposal of used face masks along with other disposable personal protective equipment posed serious risks to valuable global eco-systems creating threats to public health.

According to the health experimental results, wearing a face mask will reduce the risk of transmitting coronavirus by 47% by acting as a particle filter and by minimising the number of times an individual touches the face/mouth/nose with unwashed hands. Therefore, WHO has recommended wearing a suitable face mask appropriately at public places and when interacting with COVID infected or suspected cases. Also, according to the WHO estimates nearly 89 million face masks are needed worldwide to control COVID-19 each month. We should understand that disposable face masks which are commonly known as surgical face masks or K-95 masks contain polypropylene which is a popular kind of plastics. According to study findings, a K-95 mask contains about 9 grams of polypropylene and this value is around 4.5 gram in a surgical face mask.

Prof. Bandara said: “While the soil is contaminated with plastics, soil texture and structure will be altered and become unsuitable for plant growth hence with time, we will not be able to harvest expected yields from agricultural fields. On that day the damage will become irreversible. Not only the soil but also clogging drainage and irrigation channels by waste face masks can be expected. Currently, most of the irrigation and drainage channels in the country, especially in urban areas are already clogged by invasive aquatic weeds such as Eichornia (japan jabara) and Salvinia creating a huge social and environmental problem. Inappropriate disposal of face masks will trigger the problem as they associate with water weeds creating a mesh thereby further blocking water passages. If that is the case, flash floods in cities even in light rains would be unavoidable which is a significant economic loss and greater impact on livelihood specially those who have settled along the water canals.

“Studies carried out in the Mediterranean Sea and ocean bottoms near Hong Kong have shown lining of ocean bottom by layers of face masks which inhibit transfer of oxygen between water and soil in the bottom. With time ocean bottom will create an anaerobic condition which will badly affect the survival of benthic organisms like sea anemones, sponges, corals, sea stars, sea urchins, worms, bivalves, crabs, When the ocean is polluted by facemasks those in settle ocean bottom as well as among aquatic weeds and corals which disturb and disturbed the normal behavioural patterns of aquatic living organisms. Macroorganisms like fishes, jellyfish, and turtles will indigest face masks. This will destroy the eco- system balance and ocean productivity will go down posing a risk to the fisheries industry.

“Plastics will be broken into tiny particles less than 5 micrometres in size and form micro plastics in the form of fibres and/or particulate matter in the ocean, freshwater and marine environment. Different packaging plastic materials, bottling plastic materials and containers from the food processing industries are primary sources of micro plastics pollution. Polypropylene mixed face masks would be another source of micro plastic, especially in ocean and soil. Ultimately, Micro plastics will enter the human body through terrestrial and aquatic food chains causing numerous diseases including different types of cancers.

“As a nation, we have to develop a strategic plan to deal with the post-covid crises. One of the strategies should focus on proper disposal of PPE waste including waste face masks.

If we take examples from the world, countries like China, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan have already identified face masks as an emerging waste category and place bins with a new colour code in public places to separate waste face masks from other type of waste at the point of generation. Incineration of waste face masks is a viable option. Incinerating means burning face masks at high temperatures greater than 1000-1200 centigrade in an incinerator or dumping them in a sanitary landfill after boiling or subjecting to a heat treatment. By practicing this kind of a waste management strategy, we can stop sending waste face masks into different eco-systems. As a nation, we should recognise the importance of waste face masks management by understanding waste face masks and other disposable PPEs as an emerging waste category and should make a waste management plan immediately without further delays. Making this effort a priority by allocating required resources is an investment. Otherwise, we will be desperately looking for solutions to reclaim degraded ecosystems as we drop our agricultural production, fisheries production, increment of vector-borne diseases and other non-communicable diseases, unknown ideologies, losing corals and biological diversity.



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Weerawansa’s wife sentenced to RI

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Lawyers appearing for Shashi Weerawansa, MP Wimal Weerawansa’s wife, yesterday (27) appealed against a Colombo Magistrate’s Court decision to sentence their client to two years rigorous imprisonment.Colombo Chief Magistrate, Buddhika Sri Ragala found her guilty of submitting forged documents to obtain a diplomatic passport circa 2010. The Colombo Magistrate’s Court also imposed a fine of Rs. 100,000 on Mrs. Weerawansa. If the fine is not paid she will have to serve an extra six months.

Additional Magistrate Harshana Kekunawala announced that the appeal would be called for consideration on 30 May.The case against Mrs. Weerawansa was filed by the CID after a complaint was lodged on 23 January 2015 by Chaminda Perera, a resident of Battaramulla.

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Unions predict end of energy sovereignty

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A government decision to allow all privately-owned bunker fuel operators to import and distribute diesel and fuel oil to various industries was a rollback of the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry and another severe blow to energy sovereignty of the country, trade union activist of the SJB Ananda Palitha said yesterday.Earlier, Minister of Power and Energy, Kanchana Wijesekera Tweeted that ‘approval was given to all the Private Bunker Fuel Operators to Import and provide Diesel and Fuel Oil requirements of Industries to function their Generators and Machinery. This will ease the burden on CPC and Fuel Stations provided in bulk’.Commenting on the decision, Palitha said that according to the existing law those companies only had the power to import, store and distribute fuel for ships. Those companies did not have the authority to distribute fuel inside the country, Palitha said.

“Only the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) can distribute fuel inside the country. There is a controversy about the licence given to the LIOC as well. If the government wants other companies to import fuel, it needs to change the laws. The Minister does not have the power to make these decisions. A few months ago the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration used to rush Bills that adversely affected the country through Parliament. Now, since they don’t have a majority in parliament, they are using the Cabinet to make decisions that are detrimental to the country’s interests.”

Palitha said that the controversial government move would further weaken the CPC, and that the ultimate aim of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government was to make the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) purchase fuel from private distributors. With a weakened CPC and a CEB under the mercy of private companies, the Sri Lankan state would have little control over the country’s energy sector, he warned.

“The CEB already can’t pay the CPC, and therefore how can it pay private companies? It will have to sell its assets. This is another step in the road to fully privatise the energy sector. When this happens no government will be able to control inflation or strategically drive production through fuel and energy tariffs. The people will be at the mercy of businessmen and the government will only be a bystander,” he said.

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Modi government moves to ‘solve’ Katchatheevu issue

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The Narendra Modi government is mulling restoring the traditional rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen in Katchatheevu, an uninhabited island of 285 acres, sandwiched between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Bay, with the BJP hoping the move could lift its political fortunes in the southern state.The government will push Sri Lanka to implement “in letter and spirit” the 1974 agreement reached between Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then prime ministers of India and Sri Lanka, on the island.This will have to be done by withdrawing the “Executive Instructions” issued in 1976 without questioning Sri Lanka’s “sovereignty” over Katchatheevu, sources aware of the internal discussions in the BJP told the Indian newspaper, Deccan Herald.

Sources added that the discussions were “ongoing” at “various levels” including reaching out to Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka. The recent visit of TN BJP chief K Annamalai to Sri Lanka is also part of the outreach. Many feel the instructions issued in 1976 “superseded the provisions of the legally valid” pact between India and Sri Lanka, thus making Katchatheevu a subject of dispute in the Palk Bay.While the 1974 agreement gave away Katchatheevu, which was part of the territory ruled by the Rajah of Ramanathapuram, to Sri Lanka, the 1976 pact drew the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal.

“We cannot disturb the agreement signed in 1974. We are now finding ways and means to implement the agreement in letter and spirit. All we plan is to ask Sri Lanka to invoke Article 6 of the Katchatheevu pact. If Sri Lanka agrees, the issue can be sorted through Exchange of Letters between foreign secretaries of both countries,” a source in the know said.Another source said the time is “ripe” to push forward on the issue. “With fast-changing geopolitical situation in the region, we believe Sri Lanka will slowly come around and accept the rights of our fishermen,” the source said.

“The opinion within the party is that time is ripe to push this cause, with Sri Lanka beginning to realise that India can always be relied upon, given PM Ranil (Wickremesinghe) is pro-India.”

Articles 5 and 6 of the 1974 agreement categorically assert the right to access of the Indian fishermen and pilgrims to Katchatheevu and state that the “vessels of Sri Lanka and India will enjoy in each other’s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein”.

However, fishermen from India were prohibited from fishing in the Sri Lankan territorial waters around Katchatheevu in 1976 following the signing of an agreement on the maritime boundary. The battle for fish in the Palk Bay has often ended in Indian fishermen being attacked by Sri Lankan Navy for “transgressing” into their waters.The BJP, which is yet to make major inroads in Tamil Nadu, feels a “solution” to the long-standing issue will give the party the much-needed momentum ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and provide a chance to get into the Tamil psyche. Political analysts feel that it might also allow the BJP to needle the DMK and the Congress by pointing out that it has restored the rights “surrendered by them,” to Tamil fishermen

Senior journalist and Lanka expert R Bhagwan Singh said: “If BJP succeeds in its efforts, it will certainly help the saffron party in the coming elections.”

But a source said the move will “take time”. “We don’t want to rush and create an impression we are forcing Sri Lanka. We will take it slow. We will take every stakeholder into confidence and reach an amicable settlement with Sri Lanka. All we want to do is restore traditional rights of our fishermen,” the source said.CM Stalin also raised the issue at an event on Thursday, telling Modi that this is the “right time” to retrieve Katchatheevu.

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