What a waste!

Sometime in June 2017, Thimphu dzongkhag administration constructed several community bins on the outskirts of the city.

By September, residents of Kabisa, Begana, Debsi and others had no place to dispose their garbage. The city’s residents had started using these bins causing it to overflow. The community bins were demolished.

“The gewog administrations thought the community bins would not be sustainable and so demolished it,” a dzongkhag official said.

The gewog administrations were right. It did not help manage waste and residents in these areas do not have a place to dispose their garbage. “I think they are now carrying the garbage to the thromde while some collect it in a bolero and bring it to Memelakha.”

With budget to run them already exhausted, the two garbage trucks with the dzongkhag administration remain grounded today. The budget allocation formula the finance ministry uses to allocate budget for garbage trucks is not enough to keep the trucks running. Heavy-duty garbage trucks consume more fuel but the finance ministry uses a normal load of a truck to allocate budget. “A year’s budget runs out in three to four months time,” the official said.

While the residents in the city’s outskirts grapple with waste, the influx of garbage into the city’s garbage collection centres from the outskirts has made waste a territorial issue. Greener Way has written to the thromde stating that the number of households from the dzongkhags using their facility is increasing at an unreasonable rate.

“We are being over burdened while disposing their waste to Memelakha and also creating financial implication to Greener Way,” the letter states. Greener Way is waiting for a response.

While chronic shortage of budget is identified as one of the main reasons for the failure in waste management in the country, Thimphu dzongkhag administration’s efforts to secure funds to build the community bins however went to waste. Kuensel learnt that the bins were constructed at the end of a financial year to use the budget and avoid it from lapsing. It was not to manage waste.

The weak enforcement of plastic ban, officials said, was also due to lack of budget and human resource.  The waste prevention and management Act, 2009 mandates the National Environment Commission (NEC) as the overall regulatory authority for waste prevention and management in the country.  Three years later, the waste prevention and management regulations came into effect mandating the implementing agencies to implement the Act.

NEC secretary Sonam P Wangdi said after the Act came into effect, waste management became solely NEC’s mandate. “NEC is not a large agency and we don’t have the reach,” he said.

Earlier, the then ministry of trade and industry, the BCCI and other agencies enforced the plastic ban. “So enforcement became an issue after the Act came into effect. Trade officers felt it was not their mandate and there was no clarity on who should enforce the Act.”

Although addressing the issue has an Act, rules and the political will backed with concerns from the people, no records are available to show how much money the country has spent on waste management.

Waste like gender and corruption, officials say, is a cross sectorial issue that should make it to the annual performance agreements. Even if it is, lack of budget held all planned activities. The waste management division at NEC is only nine months old and was initially a unit with the compliance division.

The integrated solid waste management strategy, 2014, Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen launched was to respond to the growing challenge of excessive and improper disposal of solid waste in the country.

When the NEC held a stock taking exercise on the implementation of the strategy, it found that nothing much was done. “The main reason again was lack of budget,” an official said. The government’s plan to have a flagship project for waste is expected to address the issue of budget to an extent.

According to the strategy, by 2018, all towns are to be covered by door-to-door collection of waste and all dump sites upgraded. By 2015, all thromdes were to collect credible data on waste generation and composition.

“Whenever an activity to manage waste is planned, we get proposal for budgetary support,” chief environment officer with the commission’s waste management division, Thinley Dorji said. “Waste management has remained an issue because sectors had only plans and no budget.”

 

The bigger problem 

There is no data at a national level on the amount and kinds of waste generated. Those available are sporadic and limited mostly to solid waste.

“Waste inventory data itself is not accurate,” Thinley Dorji said. In 2008, the human settlement ministry did a survey on solid waste. The data is reliable but it is not a national representative data. According to one recent draft report, Bhutan produces 861 metric tonnes of waste in a week. This brings the per capita waste generation to 0.17kg a day. However, the 2014 strategy states that according to earlier surveys, residential waste per capita was about 0.540kg/day.

While the volume of waste has increased over the years, the quantity is still not enough to sustain a recycling or an incineration plant.

Against the strategy’s plan to inventories data collection by 2015, work on waste inventory began only a month ago. The national statistics bureau is conducting the inventory and would have the numbers by the end of the year.

How are we implementing the waste management activities without any data on waste?

Visibility. A walk in the town and a hike up the trails, say those involved in the waste industry, is enough indication of the problem.

The increase in waste and its visibility is an indication of how well it is being managed. “If you have managed well, you may not see it,” Thinley Dorji said. “Management is our problem and that is why the visibility. It is also about how much you are recycling.”

Clean Bhutan has conducted 593 cleaning campaigns until December 2018 since it was formed in February 2014. They collected 5,900 MT of waste.

So how was the national strategy drafted without a national data?

Through consultations, says NEC. The initial survey done on waste to draft the strategy ended up collecting information on the constraints of managing waste. Budget, lack of facilities, coordination and the lack of landfills even after segregating waste were some of the issues the survey collected. The project was revised.

The upcoming plastic ban is as much an issue of visibility, as it is about mismanagement. It is estimated that plastic comprise about 12 percent of waste generated in the country. With bans never working, the move has left many sceptical. NEC says it will keep trying and that the initial confusion over the mandate is no excuse for it to not take the lead.

“It is time to do these things. It is the priority of the future and there is an anti- plastic wave,” Sonam P Wangdi said.

The need to ban single use plastic was the main agenda at the United Nation’s Environment Assembly held earlier this month in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference adopted a ministerial declaration committing to significantly reduce single-use plastic products by 2030 among others.

“We took the lead when we first banned plastic,” the secretary said. “ Now everybody in the world is on it and we may be the last to join the ban.”

 Sonam Pelden

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