Jigmi Wangdi

When Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland pioneered the first fully synthetic plastic in 1907, little did he know the extent of the environmental degradation his revolutionary creation would eventually contribute to. It took 58 years for the one-piece polyethylene shopping bag, patented by a Swedish company called Celloplast in 1965, to emerge as a widespread product still extensively used today.

Despite numerous international advocacies promoting the adoption of alternative options to plastic bags, this product continues to maintain its prominence. Worldwide, countries produce a staggering 350 to 400 million metric tonnes of plastic waste each year, and Bhutan is no exception, with plastic bags finding their way into our daily lives. Like in many other countries, plastic bags are commonly used in Bhutan due to their affordability and perceived durability compared to traditional brown paper bags. The preference for plastic bags also stems from the convenience they offer to both customers and shopkeepers.

“While some customers do bring their own bags, it is a rare occurrence as most prefer using plastic bags,” said a woman while arranging her small vegetable stall in the heart of Thimphu city. Another shop owner, chewing on his doma, concurred, saying, “Even when customers bring their own bags, the groceries are often packed in plastic bags first and then placed into their carriers.”

Clearly, people’s inclination towards plastic bags stems from their convenience and widespread availability. Aum Pema, an average customer, expressed her preference for plastic bags due to their longevity. She remarked, “Paper bags tear so easily. Plastic bags, on the other hand, are durable and easier to carry with their handles. Moreover, I don’t just use plastic bags once and throw them away. I usually store them together and reuse them whenever needed, such as when sending vegetables from my garden to relatives.”

The reuse of plastic bags is a common practice in many households. As Aum Pema said, plastic bags are utilised for packaging goods and storing various items, from datsi to vegetables. 

However, before the surge in plastic bag usage in Bhutan, people managed to carry their goods using traditional bags or baskets. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, rainbow-colored nylon bags were a common sight among shoppers, serving as a versatile carrier for groceries. These bags can still be spotted occasionally even today.

Another traditional bag was the woven jhola, a term of Nepali origin. Jhola resembles a satchel and was historically used by school children to carry books during the weekdays and shopped goods during the weekends. Another culturally significant bag was the tsangku, a cylindrical container for storing rice, flour, maize, and other grains. These hand-woven bags filled with grains were often given as gifts or offerings.

Today, a popular alternative to plastic bags is the colorful basket woven from plastic materials. While these baskets are sturdy and resistant to breaking, people generally avoid using plastic when carrying them.

Given the availability of various alternatives, the transition from plastic bags to more convenient and reusable options appears feasible. As the world grapples with the environmental consequences of plastic waste, Bhutan, too, must embrace sustainable practices and actively seek alternatives to mitigate the menace of plastic bags.