The year of the Pig is not good for Ugyen. The astrologer asked him to conduct a rimdo. One rimdo required him to discard his old clothes, utensils, crockeries and many more.

The location chosen was a busy crossroad.

An environmentalist by heart, Ugyen was in a dilemma when it was time to dispose off the effigy, offerings and religious thread-cross. Aware of the damage it would cause to the environment, he consoled himself, promising to clean the area the next day.

“I was forced by the superstitious beliefs to leave it on the road but I promised myself that I would clean up what the birds and dogs leave behind.”

He is not alone.

Many leaving in urban areas find difficulty in disposing off waste from religious activities.

Although most of the wastes are degradable, there are also plastics, cloth pieces, papers and threads that would not degrade. “The only comfort is everybody has to do it,” said a Changzamtog resident who conducted a similar rimdo. “People eye ball you when you place it on busy roads.”

The on-going Jana Chidoe ritual in Pangrizampa will generate waste. The tshogs (offerings) are all packaged junk food. Numerous stalls and vendors line the road to the Lhakhang selling fruits and packaged tshogs.

The principal, Sither Gyaltshen, said there is no way they could stop people from bringing packaged junk, as people bring it out of devotion.

“If there is a need to reduce plastics, thromde should stop the vendors from selling,” he said. “Most of the packaged offerings here are cheap junks.”

The principal, who was in Pangrizampa for the last 18 years, said packaged junk have, however, reduced in the recent years, as more people are bringing fruits as offerings.

“It’s the second day and there are more fruits than junk,” he said. “Earlier it used to be the opposite.”

Sither Gyaltshen said the monks are managing their own waste and they did not accept proposals to clean up their area. More than 200 monks clean the surrounding every morning and evening. “That’s why you will not see any trash within the boundary. I don’t know about outside.”

Plastic bottles, dalda covers and packaged milk boxes surround most lhakhangs in the country, as people take it as offerings. Rivers are also the victims of waste from religious activities.

When the agriculture ministry conducted cleaning campaigns at Dechenphu in 2017, eight truckloads of waste were collected and it was mainly PET bottles and plastics.

Waste from religious activities, however, is not much talked about in the country. Most of the documents that detail the environmental issues do not mention waste out of religious activities and how it could be reduced.

Samdrupjongkhar Initiative (SJI) was the first civil society organisation that propagated the use of locally available foods and fruits as offerings instead of packaged junks.

According to the executive director of Clean Bhutan, Nedup Tshering, he campaigned the need to reduce the use of packaged junk during rituals.

“But no one was listening,” he said. “I then borrowed Dzongsar Jamyang Khentse’s practise and promoted it.”

He said he approached the dratsang lhentshog, who then agreed to limit the use of junk. “I mainly advocated on the expiry dates.”

He said it is not only non-degradable waste people should be concerned about but also the watercolours used on the ritual cakes (Tormas), as it is toxic and has a negative impact on the native crows.

“I have been advocating that monks should use the natural dyes available in the villages,” Nedup Tshering said.

Dratsang Lhentshog’s secretary, Pasa, said they could limit the use of plastics if the offerings are not packaged in plastics. “The only option is to use bio-degradable wrappers. The government has to find an alternative.”

His Holiness the Je Khenpo, Pasa said, has been advising people to use homemade offerings and fruits as tshogs. “The initiatives are aimed towards reducing plastics.”

NEC’s Chief Environment Officer, waste division, Thinley Dorji said the lhentshog was involved while discussing the plastic ban reinforcement, as it is one of the main stakeholders.

“In many religious gatherings, His Holiness announced the need to take care of their own waste and it was effective, as even elders diligently follow it,” he said.

Since Bhutanese connects with religion more than the modern waste management efforts, officials say the announcement of religious activities should include discouraging plastic use.

Thinley Dorji, however, said beliefs such as protecting or not defiling the abode of local deities, not littering around the ‘klu’ helped in protecting the environment.

Meanwhile, Ugyen claims that he cleaned up the area as promised after two days.

Tashi Dema