Tomorrow, Bhutan will mark World Environment Day, an occasion that holds a dual significance as it also commemorates the Birth Anniversary of Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen, the patron of environmental conservation in the country.
The theme “Beat Plastic Pollution,” this year resonates strongly with Bhutan, a country renowned for its steadfast commitment to environmental protection and preservation. Throughout the country, Bhutanese will participate in various activities aimed at raising awareness and addressing the pervasive issue of plastic pollution. These efforts will include extensive cleaning campaigns and tree-planting initiatives. Moreover, the detrimental effects of plastic on the environment and human beings will be emphasised through compelling speeches delivered in schools and institutions, reminding us of its deleterious impact.
Unfortunately, our actions tend to wane in the aftermath of these annual celebrations. Had we remained dedicated and steadfast in our commitments since the inception of the United Nations-established World Environment Day in 1973, the world would unquestionably be a better place today.
Bhutan’s leaders have long recognised the grave issue of pollution, particularly plastic pollution. While developed nations were still grappling with the problem, Bhutan took proactive measures by implementing a ban on plastic bags over two decades ago, in 1999. Unfortunately, despite the ban, we failed to effectively enforce it. Consequently, plastic pollution has emerged as one of the most pressing challenges, going by what the thromde cleaners and those engaged in waste management say.
The global scientific community has conducted extensive research to underscore the urgency and gravity of the plastic pollution predicament. However, within our own borders, it takes nothing more than a brief downpour to remind us of how plastic can disrupt our lives. Yet, this awareness often dissipates once the thromde cleaners have swept the roads clear of plastic waste and unclogged the drains, which were previously obstructed by discarded plastics.
In an attempt to revive the plastic ban, the environment commission proposed the prohibition of single-use plastic carry bags. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of such measures remains to be seen. Despite the expenditure of significant funds on numerous campaigns and advocacy initiatives, our reliance on and demand for plastic persists. When Bhutan banned plastic bags, we grabbed international headlines, but the subsequent failure to implement and enforce this ban is now regarded by many as a case study of policy implementation gone awry.
Although plastic has become nearly indispensable and presents itself as a cheaper alternative for packaging, we have not taken viable alternatives seriously enough. There exists a wealth of scientific knowledge and potential solutions to tackle this problem, yet the government, institutions, and stakeholders have not demonstrated a sufficiently serious commitment. At present, the most pervasive issue stems from single-use plastic bags, with small plastic pouches used for packaging doma (betel nut) serving as the most ubiquitous form of waste. It cannot be banned. A doma seller is more powerful than the government.
While we openly acknowledge the gravity of the plastic problem and recognise the availability of solutions and alternatives, our collective efforts beyond the annual cleaning campaign or the delivery of well-crafted speeches fall dismally short. A brief downpour soon after the international day would lay bare our glaring hypocrisy.
In Bhutan, World Environment Day holds profound significance. The most meaningful gift we can offer to Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen on her Birth Anniversary, which coincides with this day, would be to live up to the vision and not forget the problem of plastic after the day. For tiny Bhutan, the problem is small. We need big hearts to live up to the expectation and the visions.