Dr Randika Jayasinghe is a Lecturer and Head of the Department of Engineering Technology at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in Sri Lanka. She is a PhD of the University of Western Australia. Her thesis was on developing poverty reducing solutions for sustainable waste management in Sri Lanka. An expert in environmental technology and waste management, in this interview with Women Talk, Randika talks about her passion for science and technology, the significance of taking a social justice stance on waste management, how waste can be used as a resource to empower communities, and how disasters like the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapse can be mitigated by holistically approaching the issue of waste management.
What drew you towards a career in science?
From a very young age, I took an interest in nature. I was curious to find out about how and why things happened the way they did. I found nature and everything within that fascinating. This interest drew me towards science.
From a very young age, around perhaps nine or ten, I knew that one day I would like to pursue a career in science. I can still remember winning the science medal in school, at Good Shepherd Convent, Colombo 13. I was only in grade five. By that time, I already had this feeling that I wanted to do something in science. Science and Math were my favourite subjects from a very young age. That led me to study biological sciences for my Advanced Levels, through which I got admission to the Faculty of Applied Sciences at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
At first, I was not really sure if I wanted to do biotechnology or environmental sciences but I really liked the subjects of environmental pollution, waste management and wastewater management. Something inside me told me that I should go down this path; that I should do environmental sciences for my specialisation. I was very lucky that I got the opportunity to work under Prof. Nilanthi Bandara as my undergraduate research supervisor.
Were you encouraged to pursue science, as a girl child?
The beautiful thing about us, as kids, is that when we are small we do not understand those different gender stereotypes. We do not understand that this subject is for men or this subject is for women. My family was really supportive. I wanted to read a lot of articles, papers, and children’s magazines about science. And that is exactly what I was given all the time. My parents would buy me science magazines. Even in a newspaper, I would read the science pages. I did not know about the gender biases in pursuing science or math. I loved science and math and I wanted to do what I loved.
There is still a significant gap in women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. In Sri Lanka, it is estimated that only around 37 percent of women are in science fields. Now that you are in the field of science, involved with the University, you have done your PhD and you are conducting your own research projects, what does it really mean to be a woman in science?
I think there are challenges, definitely, in being a woman in science and technology. But sometimes we think too much about the challenge and if you push hard, you can overcome those challenges. I did many things over these few years. Yes, there are social, cultural, and even political challenges. It should not be seen as a thing that holds you back. It is important as a woman or a female scientist to continue to do what you like to do.
My research area is waste management. During my PhD, for my fieldwork in Sri Lanka, I had to visit all these garbage dump sites and low income settlements, and interview recyclers and waste businesses. Many people questioned me. They asked why I was into a subject like this because, according to them, it involves a lot of fieldwork and visits to places that usually women would not go. But, as a woman, it makes me more attuned to social issues, especially in relation to the women in the communities. Women play a huge role in waste management in Sri Lanka, especially in the informal sector. I guess I was much more sensitive to their issues and problems. I strongly believe that the challenges we face as female scientists, engineers or technologists give us a unique perspective and empathy in our research work and projects.
In one way or another, I believe that being a woman has influenced the path of my career as a researcher and an academic. Being a woman has definitely had a direct impact on the way I do research. As women, each of us needs to find our own voices and directions, while also encouraging the next generation of female scientists, engineers and technologists.
As recent examples, such as the Meethotamulla incident, have shown in Sri Lanka, waste management is a severe issue that we are struggling with. Your research takes on explicitly the social justice stance on waste. Could you elaborate on how your research examined this human angle, in particular, in relation to marginalised communities and their empowerment?
Especially in developing countries, and also in Sri Lanka, we do not have many advanced technologies or facilities for waste management. Our waste management system comprises two parts – it has a formal sector and an informal sector. There are many small entrepreneurs, small scale home-based businesses, and social enterprises that work with waste. Waste in our countries is not just waste. It is a resource. There are many groups that actually use waste as a resource. We are a developing country. If we can combine this aspect of waste being a resource with low-income communities and actually start businesses and income activities, that could be a win-win situation.
That way, we get to reduce, reuse, and upcycle waste and on the other hand low-income communities get a chance to earn an extra income. This is what I am really interested in – waste upcycling. Our solution for waste should not be just collecting everything and dumping in a dump site or just burning it. Yes, we need proper landfills; we need a final resting place for the waste that we cannot recycle. The problem that we have now is that we dump everything.
We need to encourage private companies, industries and other organisations to collaborate through their CSR projects or social activities to develop initiatives for these low-income communities, youth groups and women’s groups to start up new businesses. These communities have the capacity and the human capital to upcycle waste. That is why I am interested in waste and local communities. I work in that space; the intersection between waste and poverty.
Your PhD work led to the initiation of the Waste for Life Sri Lanka project, which is also an international collaboration, and you are the in-country coordinator of this project. If could talk about how the Waste for Life project came together?
Waste for Life is a loosely joined network of many people from around the world. My PhD supervisor, Professor Caroline Baillie, and her partner, Eric Feinblatt, started this organisation. They have a project in Argentina, but the real transformation of Waste for Life happened in Sri Lanka.
When I decided that I want to do a PhD, I knew that waste management is the area that I wanted to focus on. But there is plenty of very conventional research that has been done in this area. For example, there are researches on the most effective land fill design or the best composition for composting or a model for waste management in a developing country. I had read about all these topics. I knew that others have extensively researched and worked on those areas.
I wanted to look at a different option, combining something more creative and novel with my PhD. My supervisor Professor Caroline Baillie was at the University of Western Australia, at that time. I read that she runs the Waste for Life project. They worked with informal sectors and used plastic waste and other fibre material to make composite material and products. The beauty of this project is that Waste for Life does not work with high tech advanced technologies. It is low cost and uses local technology. I felt that what if I can actually bring this project to Sri Lanka. That is how my PhD started.
I looked at how we can work with the informal sector in Sri Lanka and start up new businesses that use waste as a raw material. By the end of my PhD, we applied for a grant from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) under their Global Partnerships for Development scheme (GPFD). They have received many applications and finally it was 13 applicants that were successful and we are one of them.
This is a collaborative project between the University of Western Australia and three counterpart Sri Lankan Universities – University of Moratuwa, University of Sri Jayewardenepura and University of Jaffna. I wanted to work with University of Moratuwa because that is the oldest Engineering Faculty. In the University of Jayewardenepura, there is the Centre for Sustainability and I wanted them to examine the business development part of the project. The University of Jaffna also partnered with us. At that time, an Engineering Faculty had been newly established in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. I really wanted to see how we can work in that space. This was after the war and it was a completely different environment to Colombo. That is how the project started.
We have a very small team on the ground. We have only four people working full time actually – Hiroshan Weerawardena is our designer. Mascareneous Ashokcline is a Materials Engineer and manages project work in Jaffna. Prasadi Liyanaarachchi is the Community and Business Development Coordinator. Prof. Jagath Premachandra is the University of Moratuwa coordinator. He is from the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering where the training facility is located. I need to specially mention here the support extended by Harshani Iresha to establish the facility at Moratuwa. She is now pursuing her higher studies in Japan.
I also like to thank Prof. Ajith De Alwis (University of Moratuwa/COSTI), Prof. Arulampalam Atputharajah (Dean, Faculty of Engineering, University of Jaffna) and Dr. Cynthujah Vivekananthan (University of Jaffna) for all their support to make this project a success.
Could you elaborate on how the project progressed from there onwards and what it entailed?
The project has two parts. One is to establish training facilities in the universities because there is not much research done in the waste-based composite area. The training facility is not merely a lab. It is a facility where we can conduct workshops and co-share knowledge with industries, community groups, and social enterprises. We established two training facilities at the University of Moratuwa and the University of Jaffna, Faculty of Engineering in Kilinochchi.
The next step of the project was to identify communities that we can work with. This was the difficult part, identifying communities that we can work with and see whether we can start working with a couple of them, maybe to start two or three pilot projects. This took a lot of time. We had to speak to many organisations. That understanding of whether a community group can actually work with waste and comprehend the design concept was really important.
We did not select a community if there were no reliable waste sources around them. It is pointless for a community to pay to transport waste, as transportation cost is very high in Sri Lanka. It is also not practical for them to travel far to pick waste. We had to make sure that they have easy access to waste. The main material that we work with is plastic packaging; packaging material that people do not usually collect because it is flimsy and they cannot get a good price unless otherwise they collect a considerable volume.
The next challenge was whether we can find a market for the products. These are the three big challenges – the community, finding a reliable waste source, and then a market. We knew what we were doing, we had the technology, we experimented and prototyped quality materials and really good product designs at our university facilities. But to start up community businesses, overcoming these three challenges were really important.
What are the communities you actually identified to work with?
We identified three communities to work with, initially. Two from Jaffna and one from Negombo. We provided them the equipment, the training, and all other ancillary equipment that they needed. They are really good successful community-based waste upcycling businesses now. In Negombo, we met a small-scale recycler, Jayantha Kumarasiri, who already had a recycling business. He knew everything and much more than us about plastics. For him, plastics was not an issue. But we combine two materials together to make a better product. So the next challenge for him was to find that other material, besides plastic. Then we realised he can collect old curtains, saris and gunny bags – that is a material that we could work with. We even developed a brand for them. The brand is Katana Upcycle.
Jayantha now runs a very successful stall at Good Market every Saturday. Jayantha owns the business but he works with women from the area. 8-10 women from the area who cannot go for other work or find other work, because of their household responsibilities, work with him in sorting and cleaning the waste material. They started manufacturing products. It is a simple process and there is a creative element to designing the products. The women really liked it, compared to what they were doing earlier.
In Jaffna, we found this banana selling cooperative society called Neervely. It is an interesting set up. The men in the cooperative ran the banana business but there were a lot of banana trunks available after harvest and a German NGO has given them a machine to extract banana fibre. The women used the trunks to extract the banana fibre and they were making things like ornaments, bags, and hats. But it takes a lot of time for them to make one product. For example, it will take the whole day to make a hat but they can only sell it for about 600 rupees. The women were discouraged to come to work because of this.
We developed a banana fibre composite material and came up with a range of products they could make. The material looked really nice for books, folders, coasters, place mats, menus, and files. We could sell one book for 500-600 rupees. We developed a brand for them; because it is from Jaffna and they use banana fibre, we named it Yaal Fibre. That became our second brand.
Now they are doing really well. We get a lot of orders for them from hotels, travel agencies who would like to have upcycle notebooks in their travel packs and from conferences. Companies who like to purchase corporate gifts have given them orders as well. Some of the products are available in Podi Kade, Barefoot, Prana Lounge, and Lakpahana.
Then we have another community project called Paalam Products. Paalam Products is a little different because there is a mother organisation who coordiantes the project. They support women who are affected by the war to find income opportunities. We work closely with them and have provided them the same technology and machines. I must add here that all proceeds from product sales go to these communities.
You have done a lot of research about the waste management problem in Sri Lanka and you have a good grasp about the ground reality and what is actually happening, especially, with incidents like Meethotamulla. How big is the waste management problem in Sri Lanka really?
Let’s start with Meethotamulla. I visited the place in 2011. I knew that it existed. I was surprised to see that it was only when it collapsed in 2016 people realised that there was something like this just outside Colombo. The biggest problem anywhere in the world is that we kind of distance ourselves from the waste that we create. We do not know where all the waste that we create ends up. In many cases, it is not in the middle of the commercial centres.
This is going to come as a very critical comment but the reality is we do not see any big waste dumps in the heart of Colombo. That is because everything is pushed to a place that no one can see. There is this idea called NIMBY in waste management – “not in my back yard”. That is a very unfortunate situation. What we forget is that there are also people living in those areas. One thing that I heard over and over during this Meethotamulla issue was that why do these people want to live in that area, if they knew that the Meethotamulla dump is right there. This is wrong. The people were living there already. These were their ancestral lands.
During my fieldwork, I interviewed a person who told me that before the dump came there he could see a beautiful paddy field and the school from his house and that this was a birds’ paradise. In a matter of few years, it was converted to a huge waste dump. Well, it is not a waste dump; it is a garbage mountain.
When the dump collapsed, there was a big ha-ho about it. Everyone was talking about waste, why we need to manage waste, and the importance of sorting waste. There were many television programs. Now, after like almost a year, we do not talk about it anymore. The Meethotamulla incident did lead to some initiatives in the country. Researchers, policymakers, the formal and informal sectors, everyone, should work together if we need a sustainable solution for waste. In most cases, I think that researchers and policymakers do not communicate well enough. We have to really bring everyone together.
The number one issue we have is that we do not segregate waste. Separate, separate, separate. Without that, I do not think we can go anywhere with waste management. There are waste-to-energy plants coming up in Sri Lanka. For those to run sustainably for a long time, we have to separate waste. At least if we can separate the three or four main categories, plastics, paper, and organic waste, that will reduce the burden to a huge extent. Dumping everything together is not going to work and we cannot do good projects or we cannot have proper waste management technologies with mixed waste. Separation of waste at source is key to sustainable waste management.
Your research based experience and your PhD has led for you to take on an academic role in terms of science and technology. How does that role play into your curriculum as an academic?
I truly believe that this word ‘academic’ is too old fashioned now. It has to be ‘pracademic’ – practical academic. I have to see the problem first hand to come and talk about it, to develop research, or develop a method to mitigate that. You cannot just do it by reading journal articles and newspapers. You have to be there. You have to really experience. You have to touch and feel the materials.
When I first interviewed the recyclers for my PhD, they would show me different plastic materials and ask me to identify the material. I could not. But after all these years working on the ground, now when I see a material I can tell what it is. That experience really matters in my classroom. I can confidently talk to my students and share practical knowledge. I tell my students that it is really not useful to do research just for the sake of doing that. Even for their undergraduate research, they have to find a real problem and try to find a solution. That is how I think we can improve the research culture in our country and in universities and actually find practical solutions for problems. Being in the field and working with all these different groups have immensely helped me to be a better lecturer and a researcher.
I get feedback from my students that they learn a lot from the real examples that I present. I can tell them what it is actually like to work in an area like Meethotamulla, how those people suffer, and all the issues that I have noticed. You cannot do that just by looking at a picture of Meethotamulla.
Because of your work, what are the international platforms and collaborations that have opened up for you?
We work with many different designers, researchers, and students from around the world in countries like United States, Australia, Argentina, Canada, UK, India. I need to mention here our volunteer engineers from Australia, Reddy Pramathanath and Daniel Hede, and the designers who worked with us on the ground, Ana Rapela from Argentina and Will Wells from United States. Everyone brought something very unique to the table.
Last year, I received a fellowship from the UNEP, UNESCO and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) to attend the 73rd International Short course on Resource Efficiency – Cleaner Production and Waste Management at the Centre for International Postgraduate Studies of Environmental Management (CIPSEM) at Technische Universität Dresden. There were 22 participants from around the world. That was a great opportunity and a really good experience.
I also organized a “Waste to Art” exhibition first time in Sri Lanka on a small grant that I received from the Australia Awards Alumni Innovation Challenge. In that project, I highlighted the creative aspect of waste. Waste is not just a problematic material but something that we can convert into a beautiful artwork to encourage people to think more in terms of waste upcycling.
There are many opportunities like that. The important thing is that we take advantage of the opportunities that come our way and apply what we learn here in Sri Lanka.
You received an Australia Awards Scholarship in 2011 to conduct your PhD at the University of Western Australia. You are also an active member of the committee of the Sri Lanka Association of Australia Awards Alumni (SLAAAA). Could you elaborate on the significance of the SLAAAA network and some of the initiatives that have been implemented through the group?
I am very grateful to the scholarship. It was a great opportunity to receive a fully-funded scholarship. I encourage a lot of my students to apply for that scheme as well. Right now there are opportunities to apply for the Australia Awards Master’s program. Being part of that alumni network is a rewarding experience. You get to do things outside your research area. I mostly work in the area of environmental and waste management and my work roles are as an academic and a project coordinator. With the Australia Awards Alumni network, we get to work with other alumni on different social and community projects. For instance, last year we did a sustainability symposium. We selected four sustainability goals and invited an expert panel for each of the different thematic area. That was a very successful event. We are hoping to do something like that this year as well. It is great to have received this scholarship and to come back to Sri Lanka and implement what I have learnt there and also be a part of the alumni network.
Any future projects to look out for?
I will be continuing to work on developing different composite material with problematic waste that’s out there. I have applied for a grant through my University to develop materials using synthetic textile waste, which is a huge problem in Sri Lanka. As a project coordinator, myself and my team are now looking at establishing a community centre, including a small sales outlet in Jaffna where all the communities can come and work together in one space. It is like everything under one roof. They will be able to share the machines and material and have access to a multi functional space. We hope that a centre like this will support the communities better. The University of Jaffna is also very supportive of the idea. So, that is something to look out for.
Date of Interview: 3 February 2018
Interviewer and photos of interviewee: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage