Waste is not a problem in Bhutan. Its management is.
The revival of the limited plastic ban has brought to the fore a debate on not just plastic but on the issue of waste and its mismanagement the country is today buckling under.
Bhutan was lauded for taking a courageous decision when it first banned the use and sale of plastic. Twenty years on, the same plastic ban is referred to show how bans never work.
The issue is not with the ban. It is with waste including plastic that we have failed to manage. Managing waste especially in public areas remains a lip service just as strategies on paper. The waste prevention and management Act, and the rules, enacted to empower organisations to address the problem created more confusion and saw zero work done. The National Environment Commission, has the authority but no capacity to implement the Act.
While the lack of action from government agencies have given room for civil society organisations and private entities to take up waste management, the lack of funds and reliable data on the kinds of waste the country generates paralyses planned activities. Visibility of waste that decolour our surroundings, complaints from tourists, events and now viral social media posts trigger cleaning campaigns more than the awareness and the need to keep our surroundings clean.
The little awareness instilled among the people on segregating waste is gone to waste when the garbage truck instructs them to dump the segregated waste together. Complaints on irregular waste collection by the trucks have given new problems. Lack of budget to fuel and maintain the vehicles have grounded the garbage trucks while lack of place to dump the garbage has led to increasing visibility of waste in the country. The same concerns were raised when the plastic ban was first introduced in 1999.
Bhutan has changed in the last 20 years. Bhutanese and their habits on waste haven’t even if we are today more literate and richer and modern. What we lack in data to show the burden of growing waste should be made up by our experience in managing it. This is sadly, not happening. The only change we see are in schools where children keep their surroundings free of waste. Our problem is with the adults, those who have completed their time in schools but are not yet educated on waste.
Efforts are however, on to manage waste. The government is working on a flagship programme to address waste and those in the waste industry are optimistic that this might help tackle garbage issues. NEC is hopeful that its decision to reinforce the limited ban on plastic would work this time because it has the commitment of agencies across the board.
Being unique in its development efforts and the way it does things has always been Bhutan’s strength. Our failure to manage our waste will not be unique nor a strength. It would be our biggest shame.