Last week, Parliament discussed The Waste and Stray Dogs flagship program and decided to retain it as a priority program. The Opposition Leader justified that medical wastes need to be treated with special care during the Covid-19 pandemic, and therefore the program should be retained to especially address this issue (Kuensel, 8 June 2020).

In retrospect, fighting waste requires a collective approach, and irresponsibility and illogical approaches can jeopardize the entire system. Discarding waste incorrectly in order find immediate solutions and to cut costs could exacerbate the problem into a national issue. In our context, shying from modern technologies and giving priority to older technologies and know-how like landfills are bound to lead to bigger problems in future.

The number of requests for Environmental Clearance for landfills submitted to the National Environment Commission Secretariat every year clearly indicates that Bhutanese perceive landfills as the first and best solid waste management option. However, the following are fundamental questions that need to be answered before allowing municipalities, townships and gewogs to choose this option.

1)   Have we explored other technologies for solid waste management? Have our policy makers and planners given broader and more sustainable options for solid waste management to our people.

2)   Does Bhutan have sufficient land area to build hundreds of landfills for our waste? As of today, Bhutan has over 25 open landfills.

3)   How acceptable are our people to having landfills in their vicinity? The “Not in My Backyard” syndrome is very prevalent when it comes to landfills and local populations are reluctant to have landfills in their area, often times citing religious sentiments for not allowing such a siting. As a result, it takes years to get approval for landfills.

4)   How sterile, healthy and safe are our landfills? What we call landfills are just open pits where garbage is dumped, where dogs and cattle scavenge, and where fires could spark off any time. In this context, do we have the expertise and the resources to build and manage proper sanitary landfills? For example, a rough estimate for a proper sanitary landfill measuring 3 acres with a depth of 10 meters will cost approximately Nu 11.3 million to construct. Operating such a site with Thimphu’s current volume and quality of waste will fill the landfill in three and a half years. So, is this still a viable option?

5)   What about the cost of transporting waste to landfills? Are landfills the best option for localized waste management that can reduce transportation costs?

Countries that have limited land area have opted for incinerators which is seen as a better solution than a sanitary landfill. In Japan, up to 80 percent of garbage is incinerated (May 12, 2005, New York Times). General waste generated in Tokyo undergoes intermediate treatment such as incineration, and then 100 percent of the incinerator ash is disposed off in landfill sites within Tokyo.

Paris has joined 22 other cities and regions in pledging to reduce landfill wastes by 50 percent by 2030. Germany believes that landfills are a thing of the past and are rethinking waste management through other technologies, incineration being foremost.

Danish policy on waste management also advocates the use of incinerators over landfills. The quantity of waste incinerated went up from 21 percent in 1994 to 29  percent in 2011, whereas the percentage of waste sent to landfills dropped considerably from 22 percent to 6 percent during the same period – the low percentage of waste being landfilled was due to bans against organic waste in landfills and taxes on “landfilling”.

In the Netherlands, only about 2 percent of the waste is landfilled, 81 percent recycled and 17 percent incinerated. Accordingly, the waste management hierarchy shows a clear preference for incinerators with landfills as the least desirable option.

Since the introduction of landfilling ban in Switzerland on 1st January 2000, all non-recycled combustible waste was incinerated. Solid waste from 30 municipalities in Switzerland are disposed off through incineration (November 2018).

Therefore, a re-thinking on Bhutan’s waste management is essential. The Waste and Stray Dogs Flagship Program, requires “Out of the Box”, well-planned thoughts and actions.  Yes, there is a stigma against the use of incinerators but the technology has improved over the years. Besides per unit costs have reduced while the efficiency has increased manifold.  It is high time that this option for solid waste management be given a serious thought rather than flogging the dead horse over and over again.

As the Bhutanese saying goes, “Clear the Drains Before it Rains”.


Contributed by Nedup Tshering