One of the effects of the so-called “modern development” in Bhutan, which started in the early sixties, is the introduction of waste, which is becoming an eyesore. More worryingly, the growing waste has already manifested its ill effects on human, animal and environmental health, economic development, and Brand Bhutan.
It is a known fact that high-end travellers prefer their destinations to be free of waste and that they have an above-average appreciation for things that increase their well-being and wellness. On top of this, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown all of us how important one’s health and well-being is.
Bhutan still enjoys the reputation of having our nature and environment in a pristine state with more than 70 percent of our area under forest cover and Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world. Bhutan has the highest unclimbed mountains in the world and, perhaps, Bhutan’s Constitution is the only one that mandates at least 60 percent of the country to be under forest cover at all times.
In the early sixties, our country was introduced to the outside world as a Shangri-La. I believe that wholesome cleanliness is an important element of a Shangri-La—a clean mind, a clean body, and clean physical surroundings. However, over the years, our Shangri-La status has slowly been fading with rapid increase in proportion of waste.
“…Where we live must be clean, safe, organised, and beautiful, for national integrity, national pride, and for our bright future – this too is Nation Building.” – His Majesty The King, First Royal Bhutan Flower Exhibition in Paro, April 2015.
Guided by the Royal vision, keeping our country clean has become a new national goal. Subsequently, programmes have been rolled out. Starting from 2016, the 9th of every month is observed as a mass-cleaning day where everyone is expected to participate in cleaning activities. Agencies and individuals at all levels (national, dzongkhag, and gewog) are designated to coordinate and monitor the monthly and other cleaning programmes.
In 2019, coinciding with the coronation anniversary of His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo on June 2, Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen launched the Zero Waste Hour. Led by the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS), the Zero Waste Hour obliges everyone to observe at least one hour on the second day of every month towards achieving the Zero Waste Society by 2030. All offices, institutions and, in fact, every citizen should clean their own surroundings to create a waste-free environment and inculcate civic responsibility of managing our own waste.
More recently, the management of waste together with the management of free-roaming dogs has become a national flagship programme. Many are talking about waste and have already started fighting this menace. However, going forward, much more needs to be done and many more needs to join this national mission. Every single Bhutanese must participate, own, and act to achieve this national goal of making Bhutan a Zero Waste Society by 2030.
However, the challenges are many and real, the most daunting being the widespread belief and deeply ingrained attitude that it is okay to litter as long as it is not in my own house, my own yard, or my own car. That’s why we see even trash coming from balconies and moving cars, ending up on the streets, in streams and rivers, on highways and on trails….
This could be because “minding one’s waste” was not a major part of our cultural value. I don’t remember even in my school days in the 70s and 80s being told anything specific on this value. I believe the reason for this was not because Bhutanese in the past had the good habit of taking care of waste, but rather because waste was not a problem those days. Most items were used, re-used or repurposed. Most waste was probably organic and easily given back and received by Mother Earth. So, the value of collecting waste and cleaning surrounding is not in our DNA, so to speak. It is something we have to learn and so it is hard on us.
But the good news is we can introduce a new gene in our DNA—that of cleanliness. It can be learned as shown by Singaporeans. Bhutan then, even Singapore too had to combat a similar waste problem in the early days.
While everyone’s participation is highly desirable, we need more champions like Clean Bhutan, Greener Way, Waste Handlers of Bhutan, National Environment Commission, Thromdes, Tourism Council of Bhutan, individuals like Gembo, Nidup Tshering, Garab Dorji. Maybe it would be even more effective if the following groups could be formally or informally engaged to be the champions of our Zero Waste Society. They could take up the responsibility of advocacy, action, and monitoring of the programme. And since any rule without proper enforcement seems more easily broken, maybe some of these groups could also be authorised to impose penalties on the defaulters. They could help lead the way and introduce Bhutan to the Cleanliness Gene.
These special groups are dratshang and private religious institutions (20,000), educational institutes and students (1,50,000), three armed forces (15,000), De-Suups (17,000), civil servants (30,000), employees of corporations and CSOs (10,000), tourist guides (3,000), taxi, bus, and truck drivers (15,000).
For tourism, our status as the last Shangri-La is one of our biggest assets, one that we need to protect. Today, unmanaged waste is already posing a serious threat to our Shangri-La status. If we do not act now, I am afraid, it will end up in the trash too and the world will have no more Shangri-La. We have to avoid this catastrophe not only for Bhutan but also for the world.
Let me conclude by sharing my views on managing waste on trails, as more and more trails are littered with trash or have become dumpsites. While dustbins and pits are commonly used to collect waste on trails, my experience thus far does not support these for a number of reasons, the main being the need for someone to empty them, which is highly impractical in far-flung trails. It should, however, work well in cases where there is high volume traffic, such as parks, gardens, and streets with dedicated personnel to empty them as and when required.
As trail-builders around the world have found placing bins in more remote areas can actually be a detriment to the trail for the following reasons:
1. If there is no ongoing, regular stewardship and cleaning, these bins fill to overflowing.
2. Once there is a waste on the trail, and around the bins, it provides a license to others to contribute to the problem.
3. The bins themselves often detract from natural beauty.
4. Waste in bins or on the trail attracts scavenging animals and can harm or kill birds and other small animals if ingested or tangled.
So, even on trails, maybe the most effective way to keep waste off the trail in the long term is to build a culture of personal stewardship with a basic philosophy: “Carry in. Carry out”. If one is able to bring it, one must be able to carry it out and dispose of or recycle it. The other option is to pack one’s own healthy food in reusable containers and use a refillable water bottle.
Personal responsibility in thought and action amongst all Bhutanese, to take care of one’s waste, is most likely the most important contributor to the achievement of the national goal of becoming a Zero Waste Society by 2030.