This week, for the first time, the United Nations Environment adopted the “framework to curb the world’s growing plastic problem” to develop an international legal instrument to end plastic pollution. Bhutan has attracted much international attention for championing the plastic ban, yet the ban has remained a paper tiger.

Article 5(1) of our Constitution makes every Bhutanese a trustee of the country’s “natural resources and environment for the benefit of the present and future generations.” It also imposes a fundamental duty of every citizen to contribute to the protection of the natural environment, conservation of the rich biodiversity and prevention of all forms of ecological degradation.  Article 5(2) mandates the government to protect, conserve and improve the pristine environment and prevent pollution and ecological degradation and ensure a safe and healthy environment. This makes both the citizens and government protect the environment and prevent pollution. Bhutan has enacted numerous legislations, adopted policies and strategies to address waste and prevent pollution and one was a plastic ban. History tells us that it has been more than two decades since the plastic ban was initiated and yet today, plastic forms one of the major wastes. This means both the citizens and government have failed in our constitutional duty. This calls for alternatives to what we have done thus far.

While Bhutan’s international commitments are much appreciated, the local impact of our commitments is not as per our expectations. The successive governments have used the same tactics in addressing plastic waste and we continue to face the serious challenge of regulating plastic wastes. With the ever-increasing in import of goods from household items to construction materials to groceries to clothing, almost everything comes in packaging. Plastic forms the major packaging material.  

If one talks to people involved in managing the waste, it is not encouraging. For example, to address e-waste- mainly plastic, semi-metallic or non-degradable wastes, the Ministry of Information and Communication is supposed to monitor but waste managers have neither seen them visiting their dump yards nor any guidelines or solutions to address this waste. The sorting of this waste is solely left to the waste managers. While many Bhutanese officials rush outside to see waste segregation facilities, when a similar plant was installed in the capital, hardly any government official visited these facilities. Some even discouraged such facilities without seeing them. One manager states that if it has not been His Majesty’s intervention, the loans could have bankrupted the company.  The open and unregulated dumping yards above Shaba in Paro and Memeylakha in Thimphu are prime examples of how poorly our regulators are in waste management.

Some of the immediate measures the government should do are to legalize the import of plastic bags with a heavy tax. The free supply of plastics in the vegetable market must stop and instead charge them to discourage the use of plastics. Impose additional taxes on the import of goods with plastic packages especially junk food and bottled water. We have cleaner water here yet import heavily chlorinated bottled water. Government must stop the use of bottled water in any kind of official function. Comprehensive e-waste management is needed urgently. Finally, let us encourage and incentivize including financial accessibility to the waste managers to set up large scale recycling in the country. Let’s stop banning because it is ineffective instead regulate with better strategies. 

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.