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Journal ArticleDOI

A social systems approach to sustainable waste management: leverage points for plastic reduction in Colombo, Sri Lanka

11 Jan 2021-International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology (Informa UK Limited)-Vol. 28, Iss: 6, pp 562-580
TL;DR: This article showed that global plastic production continues to increase at an exponential pace, and global waste projections show waste generation rising by 70% by 2050, and that plastic waste connects to all social processes.
Abstract: Global plastic production continues to increase at an exponential pace, and global waste projections show waste generation rising by 70% by 2050. Plastic waste connects to all social processes, esp...

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Citation Details

  • A social systems approach to sustainable waste management: leverage points for plastic reduction in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  • International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 1–19.
  • This Post-Print is brought to you for free and open access.
  • It has been accepted for inclusion in Urban Studies and Planning Faculty Publications and Presentations by an authorized administrator of PDXScholar.

Background on plastics

  • Scientists call this the age of the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2006; Steffen et al., 2007), whereby mankind, due to the “variety and longevity of human-induced change, including land surface transformation and changing the composition of the Page 5 of 62 URL: http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/tsdw.
  • Thus, near-p rmanent contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste is a growing concern” (Geyer et al., 2017).
  • This works to the benefit of producers, for as long as they can mask the impacts of this production, they are given social license to continue to produce and perpetuate the petrochemical markets (McKay, 2019).
  • According to current projections of the increase of plastics, by 2050 plastic production could account for 20% of global oil production (Giacovelli, 2018) and plastic waste could increase four times what the authors currently dispose of globally (Geyer et al., 2017).
  • This research also contributes to broader dialogues on waste management in the global south, and joins the conversation with narratives on growth, consumption patterns, and unsustainable resource use (Klein, 2014; Hawken, 2017; Moore 2011; Norberg- Hodge, 2014).

Systems Theory

  • Systems theory says an unsustainable system is, “a system undermining its own means of support” (Meadows, 1999).
  • Systems thinking values the vertical and horizontal integration of knowledge, and acknowledges that solutions can come from various places within the system (Meadows, 2008; Wiek et al., 2011).
  • Applying systems thinking guides the researcher to understand waste systems patterns; provides the ability to reflect on positive and negative feedback loops; acknowledges interconnections and overlapping responsibilities and interests; and this framing avoids the habitual patterns of siloed problem- solving that recreates imbalances (ibid.).
  • Systems theory marks a paradigm shift from modes of mechanistic thinking and mechanistic worldviews, to ecological, holistic, and integrative thinking (Capra & Luisi, 2014).
  • In the iceberg, the single event (tip of the iceberg), links to deeper patterns of behavior, structure, and mental models (the iceberg hiding below the surface).

Context: Colombo, Sri Lanka

  • Located in the Western Province of Sri Lanka, Colombo, the capital and the island nation’s most populous city, is a pertinent site for researching plastic waste in the global south.
  • Like many economically developing countries, Sri Lanka is challenged with balancing pressures of development and sustaining the social and environmental richness at the heart of the Sri Lankan identity.
  • Unstable trash heaps can cause flooding or landslides, as seen in the April 2017 Meethotamulla collapse that killed dozens and buried over 100 homes.
  • Open waste pits also cause health impacts to wildlife, as many species including elephants scavenge these piles and regularly eat plastics (Rodrigo, 2017).

Methods

  • The researcher hypothesizes that social structures and political and cultural dynamics play a formative role in the dominant practices to manage plastic waste.
  • Themes evolved as the researcher reread the interviews and transcribed all the notes (working with interview data).
  • One can identify that alternatives that are emerging within the network of stakeholders do not have the same opportunities to access and influence policy; and also that policymakers are not aware of everything beneficial that is happening on the ground for waste reduction.

Implications for the Global Waste Dialogues

  • The microcosm of Sri Lanka shows us that the dialogues on waste reduction are predominantly happening outside of politics: by local businesses, civic organizations, and NGOs.
  • In the context of other developing nations battling their own waste crisis one can ask:.
  • The stakeholder network map for waste stakeholders in Colombo shows that plastic waste is an issue that extends beyond the normal, linear confines of waste management experts – to students, lawyers, professors, manufacturers, recyclers, local and international businesses, local and international organizations, etc.
  • When deconstructing and addressing the Page 44 of 62 URL: http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/tsdw.
  • For cities ready to take this step, the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives recently created a Zero Waste Masterplan and website that acts as both rough guide and Page 45 of 62 URL: http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/tsdw.

Conclusion

  • Sri Lanka currently faces a complex web of social and ecological challenges in managing an increasing plastic waste stream, and this research shows that although the network of waste stakeholders is robust and experienced, current waste trajectories continue to recreate pathways of harm, as well as ignore the diverse voices within the system.
  • Collaboration that could be used to overcome hurdles is instead being thwarted by siloed thinking on waste issues; and experts have not tapped into the potential synergies of working with passionate civic leaders, NGOs and academics.
  • Alternatives to plastics and strategies for nonlinear waste management are emerging from the network, yet still in nascent stages and not officially recognized.
  • Sri Lanka has a diverse network of waste stakeholders, and if more attention is paid to the system’s actors as a whole, deeper level systems change can emerge from the existing knowledge and expertise within the network.
  • The analysis outlines contextually-appropriate ways for waste reduction change to occur through patterns of behavior, structure, and mental modes (Meadows, 2008).

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For Peer Review Only
A social systems approach to sustainable waste
management: leverage points for plastic reduction in
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Journal:
International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology
Manuscript ID
TSDW-2020-0598
Manuscript Type:
Research Article
Keywords:
plastic pollution, plastic waste, sustainability, waste management, Sri
Lanka, social systems theory, SDG11 Sustainable Cities and
Communities < UN Sustainable Development Goals
URL: http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/tsdw
International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology

For Peer Review Only
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A social systems approach to sustainable waste management:
leverage points for plastic reduction in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Abstract
Global plastic production continues to increase at an
exponential pace, and global waste projections show waste
generation rising by 70% by 2050. Plastic waste connects to all
social processes, especially within the context of urbanization
and development; urban planning and land management; GHG
emissions; labor; social equity; public health; rural-to-urban
migration; increasing population; increasing consumption;
climate change; etc. The focus of this research is an analysis
of plastic waste management practices in Sri Lanka applying
systems thinking, with a goal to better understand the social
and ecological impacts of plastic waste in Sri Lanka. This
research fills a gap in understanding the complex social
dynamics that factor into plastic management, beyond the
engineering of waste systems. The researcher works from the
assumptions that waste is a social issue, that requires social
responses that move beyond engineering and linear waste
management; that designing a better or more efficient linear
solid waste management system for the current realities of waste
generation will only result in a continued, unsustainable waste
system; and that plastics are truly a global challenge, relevant
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for global south contexts, and these challenges require local-
appropriate solutions. The findings illuminate the network of
local waste stakeholders, and highlight paths forward in waste
reduction through patterns of behavior, structure, and mental
modes that can lead towards a sustainable future for Colombo.
Keywords: plastic pollution; plastic waste; waste management;
sustainability; systems thinking; Sri Lanka
I. Introduction
Sorting out a more sustainable solution for the rising amounts
of plastic waste and plastic pollution is one of the great
challenges of our times. Global plastic production continues to
increase at an exponential pace (Geyer et al., 2017), and global
waste projections show waste generation rising by 70% by 2050
(Kaza et al., 2018). Waste generation and subsequent management
are not stand-alone issues; waste issues connect to all social
processes, especially within the context of urbanization and
development (Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata, 2012). Most global south
countries lack the means for managing plastics once thrown away
(Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata, 2012), and the majority of plastics
are thrown away after one use (Parker, 2017). Plastic such as
PET bottles, food packaging, and shopping bags, cannot
biodegrade, they leach harmful chemicals (Groh et al., 2019),
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and are dangerous for human and ecosystem vitality (Thompson et
al., 2009).
World Bank analysts suggest that municipal solid waste
management is the most important service that a city can
provide, in both low and high-income countries (Hoornweg &
Bhada-Tata, 2012). Increasing urbanization is mirrored by
increasing waste generation, as global waste is projected to
rise 70% by 2050 (Kaza et al., 2018). Currently 55% of the
world’s population lives within an urban area, and this number
is projected to rise to 68% by 2050, with up to 90% of this
growth being in Asia (UN DES, 2018). Waste management is still a
challenge for most municipalities (Kaza et al., 2018; Wilson,
2015a), yet the cost of inaction to society on waste is
estimated at 5-10 times the cost of management, and these losses
include damages to health, productivity, increased flood risks,
and damages to businesses, especially those within the tourism
economy (Wilson et al., 2015a, b).
These considerations in mind, the focus of this research is
an analysis of plastic waste management practices in Sri Lanka
and the network of stakeholders engaged with these processes.
The aim is to uncover leverage points for plastic waste
reduction, and alternative strategies to the standard, linear,
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  • ...The Iceberg Model is a reference for the depth of systems thinking (Meadows 1972; Senge 2006)....

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Frequently Asked Questions (1)
Q1. What are the contributions in "A social systems approach to sustainable waste management: leverage points for plastic reduction in colombo, sri lanka" ?

The focus of this research is an analysis of plastic waste management practices in Sri Lanka applying systems thinking, with a goal to better understand the social and ecological impacts of plastic waste in Sri Lanka. This research fills a gap in understanding the complex social dynamics that factor into plastic management, beyond the engineering of waste systems.