YK Poudel 

Karma Gyelpo, a 53-year-old regular customer at Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM), stands out among the crowd as one of the few individuals who brings his own jute bag—a reusable and eco-friendly alternative to plastic. Vendors at CFM commend Gyelpo for his conscious choice, recognising that he represents a minority in a country that has struggled to fully champion the ban on plastic bags, which was implemented on April 20, 1999.

Despite the national headlines generated by the ban over two decades ago, Bhutan has yet to achieve the desired level of success in eradicating plastic from its ecosystem. The lingering question remains: is it impossible or merely a reluctance to take a more decisive stance?

The discussions surrounding the need to outlaw the use or sale of plastic carry bags, wrappers, and homemade ice cream pouches persist. Karma Gyelpo believes that Bhutan, as an emerging economy, can learn lessons from countries where plastic consumption is kept to a minimum.

“Bhutan is regarded as a climate champion, and it is important for us to recognise the change in mindset of our people and appreciate those who are working towards a more sustainable future,” he says.

Gyelpo further emphasises the necessity for comprehensive government measures to address the issue. He questions the effectiveness of imposing fines on residents who fail to segregate their wet and dry waste or on shopkeepers who sell goods in plastic, considering that all waste ends up together in the landfill. “Does it make sense?” he wonders.

While Bhutan has witnessed commendable initiatives by individuals and organisations focused on plastic management, the lack of significant government incentives poses a challenge to the scalability and impact of these efforts.

Choki Pem, a vegetable vendor in Toebisa, Punakha, says that she sells vegetables in 30 to 50 plastic bags each day. “Travellers usually do not carry their own reusable bags, so we cannot deny them when they ask for plastic bags.” Pem emphasises the need for a proper monitoring system and the importance of raising awareness and educating the public about plastic waste management.

Karma Yonten, the founder of Greener Way, points out that plastic bags and wrappers constitute a significant portion of waste in Bhutan. Drains, pathways, and landfill sites are overflowing with plastic waste. Greener Way, for instance, recovers 600-800 kg of mixed plastic waste and 500-800 kg of PET waste daily from their Material Recovery Plant in Babesa.

He stressed on the necessity of incentive assistance for organisations engaged in plastic waste management. The government, he said, could support research through grants for affordable product development. He argued that incentives would not only encourage existing initiatives but also inspire new participants to join the cause, promoting a robust and comprehensive approach to plastic waste reduction.

A shopkeeper in Thimphu said the cost of single-use plastic carry bags has increased—Nu 500 per kilogram compared to Nu 150 previously. Banning plastic outright, shopkeeper argue, will only lead to an increase in illegal sales.

Should the government then consider altering import taxation on plastics, coupled with strict monitoring, to reduce the use of single-use plastics?

Many agree, and providing proper incentives to plastic champions would serve as a significant motivating factor.

Sherub Dema, another vendor at CFM, acknowledges the role plastic plays in keeping goods fresh. However, she also admits that the waste generated from plastic usage is a substantial burden for waste management agencies and stresses the urgent need for alternative solutions.

Thinley Dorji, chief environment officer at the Department of Environment and Climate Change, said that fiscal incentives and tax rebates are provided for waste management-related activities. A staggering 29 tonnes of plastic waste, he said, is generated nationwide on a daily basis.

There is a need for substantial resources, infrastructure, and expertise, he added, to effectively manage plastic waste, suggesting that government incentives can play a crucial role in supporting the development and expansion of entities involved in plastic waste management.

The National Environment Commission has reinforced the ban on plastic multiple times since 2005, with the most recent notification issued in 2019.

According to the National Statistics Bureau’s 2020 survey, plastic waste accounts for 17.1 percent of the total waste in Bhutan, second only to food waste.