Students of Karma Academy in Paro were recently recognised with awards for collecting waste from around Shaba. Students collected more than 400 sacks of waste in a day-long cleanliness campaign.

It was a small, local project with deeper meaning and wider implications.

Waste is becoming one of the biggest development issues facing the country today. Development is inevitable but how we must develop is in our hands. We are recognised as one of the few countries that take environment conservation very seriously.

The conservation of the environment, in fact, is one of the main pillars of Gross National Happiness, the country’s overarching development goal. But that truth is now beginning to sit very uncomfortably on it.

Thimphu, the country’s biggest city, for example, is projected to produce about 125 metric tonnes of waste a day by 2027. Disposal of waste, from segregation at the source to mindless disposal, is a growing concern. The only landfill in Memelakha, which by the way has outlived its age, may not be able to handle the amount of waste the city will churn out in a day.

Looking beyond, our towns and cities are growing at a much faster rate. Rural to urban migration remains unchecked. Waste generation, going by the way we are managing it, could overwhelm us.

Once fresh and pristine, our streams and rivulets are now choked with all manner of waste, particularly plastic. Our forest trails and sacred mountains are filled with garbage. Why is this happening?

Many say that the source of waste is Bhutan’s rising dependence on import. This cannot be denied. But what are the alternatives? Policies, we have many but they aren’t bringing significant changes.

The preservation of the environment is not the work of just one secretariat; nor will we ever be able to address all the environment-related issues from textbooks and class-room education. The question is: what can we do that we haven’t done already, to not solve but address, the problem of growing waste in the country?

Small programmes to incentivise the citizens, particularly the young, is the way forward. We can, for example, cut by so much more on tours and expenses and invest in education. We are talking about changing our habit, which will come only with wholehearted focus and investment therein.

Give education, awareness, and invest sensibly; the communities will take care of their own sense of ownership. That is the policy direction we need—change must begin in the hearts of the people.