Twenty years after Bhutan first banned the use and sale of plastic carry bags, doma wrappers and ice cream pouches, the ban will be reinforced nationwide again on April 1.

The National Environment Commission (NEC) has clarified that the ban is on business establishments and not on customers, who reuse and carry their own plastic bags.

For instance, if a shopkeeper packs the shopped groceries or vegetables in a carry bag and hands it over to the customer, the shopkeeper is liable for penalty. However, if customers come with their own plastic bag to the vegetable market or a grocery store, the customer would not be penalised.

The commission, which is taking the lead in the ban, has allowed respective agencies at all levels to implement the ban in a sustainable manner. This means, the implementation of the ban will vary in dzongkhags and thromdes.

NEC secretary Sonam P Wangdi said the use of single use plastic has increased and that the commission is up-scaling the enforcement of the 1999 ban. Many countries, he said, have banned the use of single use plastic and that there is a movement to do away with as much plastic.

“We wanted to inculcate in people to understand that the benefits of few minutes of convenience is not worth to the environment,” he said. “It is an appeal to the goodness in all of us to care for the environment and to carry a bag.”

Chief environment officer with the waste management division at the commission, Thinley Dorji, said that since the ice cream pouches are no longer in use, the ban is mainly for carry bags and doma wrappers.

The ban, he said, also does not apply to local products such as zaw, flattened rice, chilli powder and vegetables that are packaged in plastics.

“These are not factory products and we felt it would affect our farmers who may face difficulty packaging these products,” he said. “We are not banning on individuals who reuse the plastic bags. What is not allowed is for the shopkeeper to give the supplies to a customer in a plastic bag.”

On January 14 this year, the commission issued a notification reinforcing the limited plastic ban of 1999.  It called on all relevant agencies to carry out sensitisation programmes, to explore the availability of alternatives and to prepare the monitoring plans and programmes.

Following concerns and confusions on the reinforcement of the ban, the commission on March 20 issued another notification clarifying that the reinforcement notification does not include plastic used for any other packaging such as packaging of vegetables in the market, zaw (roasted rice), juma (Bhutanese sausages)/ezay and industrial packaging.

What is the alternative?

Since the notification was issued, the commission says it has received several proposals to import biodegradable plastic and few who want to set up a biodegradable plastic manufacturing plant.

“As people were seeing this as a business opportunity, we did a research, got in touch with UN experts and did some tests,” Thinley Dorji said.

The available bags that claim to be biodegradable were found to be equally hazardous to the environment, if not dumped properly.

“Normal plastic take 50-100 years to degrade while the bio-degradable ones take six months to a year. But it leaves behind certain materials that are not degradable, called as micro-plastics,” he said.

Some were found to contain heavy metals and some needed to be disposed properly. “Since it is bio-mass and if not degraded in controlled condition, methane generation is high, which is not good for the climate,” he said.

Methane generation from such waste was found to almost equivalent or more than normal waste’s methane generation. “But the fact is that plastic is everywhere and not managed properly. This means people will continue to throw it everywhere saying that it is biodegradable.”

So what then is the alterative?

The commission recommends all to carry their own bags and to use jute, cotton or paper bags.


The 1999 ban

The first ban was enforced on June 2, 1999 to mark the silver jubilee celebrations of His Majesty The Fourth King. The then ministry of trade and industry enforced the ban.

Kuensel records show that when the ban was first introduced, a press release from the ministry had stated that Bhutan’s very status as an environment friendly country was threatened by non-biodegradable plastic bags which were now found “in the remotest villages, highest mountains, valleys, forests, rivers and agricultural fields, not to speak of the drains, the streets and the household garbage in our urban centres.”

“The use of plastic bags is increasing rapidly,” the ministry had stated. “They have ended the tradition of shoppers and shops using cloth, paper and other reusable and easily degradable bags.”

Sonam Pelden