On April 14, 2017, Colombo’s controversial Methotamulla garbage mountain collapsed, killing 32 people, leaving 8 missings, and destroying the homes of about 1,800 . The disaster was the tragic peak of a long-standing controversy over waste management in the Colombo metropolitan area, which already before caused pollution and deathly diseases in the local population. Also after, the problem of hazardous waste dumping and was moved far away from the city while incinerators were presented as a supposed solution.
Meethotamulla became Colombo’s principle dumpsite after the previously used Bloemendhal dump had exploded and partially collapsed in 2009. Numerous homes became destroyed, but fortunately, without causing any deaths, as most residents were attending a ceremony in another part of the neighborhood at the same moment. Up to that point, waste had been dumped at Bloemendhal without any control since 1997 and caused severe environmental contamination and health hazards for hundreds of dwellers who lived next to the dump. They mobilized against the adverse impacts for years – but without being heard. The situation was aggravated by an ongoing dispute over waste management between the municipality and the private contractor Burns Trading, which together with bureaucracy and supposed bribery and intimidation stopped any action. The 2009 disaster was followed by fire outbreaks from released methane and a supreme court decision to close Bloemendhal for waste disposal after residents of Colombo had successfully filed a fundamental rights case against the company’s waste management practices. Authorities then had to find a new dumping ground, but the underlying problems remained unaddressed. In Bloemendhal, methane fires also continued after the closure, such as most recently in 2019. 
An interim order redirected all the waste from Colombo to a small dumping ground in the area of Meethotamulla, an area of former marshland with partly informal settlements in the suburb of Kolonnawa. While about one hectare had become authorized for dumping for a period of two years, the dumping simply continued in the following, backed with political support. Waste soon extended over more than 12 hectares and built a 50 meters high garbage mountain. In 2012, locals formed the People’s Movement against the Meethotamulla Kolonnawa Garbage Dump (PMMKGD).  They pointed to the lacking environmental impact assessment, considered the dumping as illegal, and filed a lawsuit against authorities. The movement staged numerous protests and blocked backhoes, demanding a guarantee that waste disposal will be stopped. While politicians reacted with renewed promises (for example in 2013: “We have asked the residents of the area to tolerate the situation till the end of this year and we hope to provide a good solution” ), demonstrations were often dissolved with police violence, water-cannons and the arrest of PMMKGD members. In 2016 protesters even became attacked by thugs, which the group regarded as a coordinated action against them.  Locals alleged the waste contractors and their political allies in the local administration of having economic interests in maintaining the status quo, instead of seeking an alternative dumping site [9a].
At this point, Methotamulla received about 800 tons of waste daily . The continued uncontrolled dumping had led to the emergence of an informal waste economy, as several businesses and waste collectors benefited from the dump and were opposed to plans of the provincial council to sell the area to a recycling company. In addition, the dump was also frequented by 60 to 70 waste picker families, who had been collecting recyclable materials in Methotamulla for over 10 years and whose livelihoods depend on open access to waste.  According to a media report from 2010, dumped garbage included “left-over eatables, plastic items, zinc sheets, paper, clothes, hospital wastes, e-waste, dead carcasses and human internal organs”  and was rummaged by waste pickers, including teenagers, with their bare hands. Waste pickers report about difficulties to collect materials during the rain season, that they were exposed to viruses but have developed a good immune system, but there was still a permanent risk to encounter syringes, injections and other hazardous material among the trash. Also, deathly accidents have occurred, as for example, one waste picker died after being buried under a truck-load of garbage. Waste pickers said that they could make around Rs. 2,000 per day (US$ 10), but also had to bribe the municipal and security officers by paying Rs. 100 each to get permission to enter the site. Very occasionally, they could find expensive items among the garbage. The dump moreover provided them with food, often even coming warm from hotels.  As a study about Sri Lankan waste pickers notes, they are highly knowledgeable of recycling and often creative in making use of “waste”, but at the same time confronted with strong social stigmatization and disfavoring public policies that leave them largely marginalized and dependent on intermediaries, who often only pay low prices for recyclables .
The dump created numerous environmental problems: It polluted local water resources, caused regular waste spills all over the area, produced bad smell and toxic, inflammable gases and, as a consequence, caused the spread of respiratory illnesses and diseases, which even led to the closure of local schools for half a year, as teachers refused to work in the environment. About 4,700 families living around the dump were severely affected by contaminated air and water; community members reported about constant sickness as well as deaths in their family. Explosions from released gas caused damages at more than 100 houses.  By 2015, at least 30 people in Kolonnawa were reported to have died from dengue and leptospirosis (rat fever) related to the dump . Soil that was used to cover waste in order to reduce the smell caused permanent dust and locals also blamed waste pickers for burning non-recyclable waste together with tires, both leading to further air contamination. In addition, the neighborhood became regularly flooded with contaminated wastewater in periods of heavy rain, and in 2016, 60 percent of the residents were reported to be ill as a result [9a]. The government offered incentives for affected residents to find alternative housing, but most of them did not regard the proposed payment as fair and refused . The community instead wanted the dump to be moved and in demonstrations stated: “We suffered for 10 years, enough is enough” . The municipal council then invoked the help of the national government, which repeatedly promised to find an alternative [9a]. However, just three months before the tragedy, the government had requested the municipal council to take action and to remove garbage from the dump [9b]. Just before the tragedy, a new fire had broken out at the dumpsite, caused by released methane and extreme heat, and again residents protested to make authorities act .
After the catastrophe, the national government made Colombo’s municipal council responsible for the events, saying it had handled the dumpsite negligently. In 2018, its commissioner became dismissed, but then reinstated a few months later. Moreover, the area should have become rehabilitated and displaced residents receive compensation of between $US 325 and 975, but more than two years later the rehabilitation has not happened and some people still remain displaced and without compensation.  The dumping was temporarily moved to the Kerawalapitiya dump, in the suburbs of Colombo, where the capacities were soon exceeded and residents launched protests against waste piling up in the neighborhood . The search for a new dumpsite again brought up the “not in my backyard” dilemma that Colombo has been facing since the 1990s  – see for example also the case of Waga Pelpola in the EJAtlas. In the urgent need to find a solution for the waste problem, the government in 2017 announced the start of construction of a new sanitary landfill in Aruwakkalu, called for international bids for waste disposal systems and selected three waste-to-energy projects, which were presented as long-term solutions to the waste problem .
Located in a sparsely populated area 170 km north of Colombo, the Aruwakkalu landfill seemed to be a better choice after attempts to find locations closer Colombo met strong residents protests  and the city had been recently pursuing a ‘beautification’ strategy . As part of the mega-project, Methotamulla should become converted into a waste collection center from which waste from the entire metropolitan area would be transported to the district of Puttalam via railway. The Aruwakkalu project came with severe ecological impacts, management practices that distorted conditions from the environmental impact assessment, and the complete ignoring of community protests against social injustice, environmental racism and “becoming the new Methotamulla”. The landfill went into operation in 2019, accompanied by mass demonstrations of the local population – see also the related case in the EJAtlas.
As of March 2020, the incinerators were already in their final construction phase. The “Colombo South Waste Processing Facility” is announced to start its operations in December 2020. It is located in Karadiyana (Colombo), which has so far served as the country’s second-biggest dumpsite and caused a headache for the local population; in 2019, the dump was even under the risk of collapse, so that families had to be relocated.  This waste-to-energy project is developed by the company Fairway and consists of a biological processing plant and a mass burn incinerator for solid waste. With a capacity of 12 MW, it is expected to generate electricity for 40,000 households consuming about 500 tons of municipal solid waste.  Two further plants are being built in Mutharajawela, in the area of the closed Kerawalapitiya dumpsite, together with adding 20 MW to the electricity grid. The “KCHT Power Station” is expected to process 630 tons of waste per day as part of a public-private partnership between KCHT Lanka Jang (a subsidiary of the Korean company KCHT Jang) and the districts of Colombo and Gampaha.  The ”Aitken Spence Power Station” is developed by Western Power Company Ltd., a subsidiary of the Aitken Spence conglomerate. It was originally proposed in 2009 to be built in Meethotamulla, but never got off the ground so that it has become relocated to Muthurajawela.  The burning of waste creates fly ash as unusable residue, which amounts to about 2 percent of the input volume and has to be deposited somewhere .
With regard to further waste-to-energy projects, the Sri Lankan government now, however, seems to row back its ambitions as it has realized that the created energy was too costly and had to be further subsidized . This confirms raised objections by experts who argue that waste-to-energy projects are not economically viable as, despite the increasing waste volumes, garbage in Sri Lanka is still largely organic and high in moisture content. Moreover, incineration would compete with recycling, as already now Sri Lanka’s recycling facilities have not enough materials to recycle due to problems in separation and collection.  The director of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), Hemantha Withanage, also pointed out that Aruwakkalu would already receive 60-70% of the waste of the entire Western Province, and therefore there was actually not enough solid waste left to burn. The need to permanently fuel waste-to-energy plants to make them more viable would thus incentivize illegal waste business and imports – and make Sri Lanka an international junkyard. In fact, the majority of waste in Colombo is said to be controlled by the mafia, and the country has already recently become a major destination for international waste, following the import bans for several types of waste in China. 
For Sri Lanka’s informal waste pickers, these developments are unlikely to bring an improvement, as waste is more and more enclosed, just to then go up in flames, while no comparable efforts seem to be on the way to encourage recycling and support informal recyclers. Reflecting on Sri Lanka’s trajectory of open-air dumping in the cases of Bloemendhal and Methotamulla, and the landfill plans in Puttalam, Jayasinghe et al. (2019) note that informal recycling practices are clearly not recognized in the county’s waste management policies. These are strongly biased towards large-scale models and dominated by political strategies, vested interests, a discourse of ‘development’, and the framing of waste as a crisis rather than a resource. In all this, informal waste pickers remain highly marginalized, often discriminated and considered as “unclean”; their knowledge and practices are subordinated to inadequate and socially unjust waste management systems and discourses. Along with this social stigmatization, waste pickers also report about precarious living and working conditions and the problem of increasingly restricted access to waste by private companies, which exacerbates the collection of recyclables.