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Saving the environment, on paper

After Samdrupjongkhar ​T​hromde committed to become the first plastic​-​free city in the country, Tsirang ​too has decided to go plastic​-​free.

Even though these moves have come 19 years after Bhutan first banned plastics, the decision to make communities plastic​-​free is encouraging. That is, if ​the effort is sustained.

The ​issue of ​plastic waste that Bhutan is grappling with today is a consequence of weak or zero implementation of the plastic ban. We tried twice. We failed both times.

Last week, to observe the environment day, cleaning campaigns were held in six dzongkhags. Records with Clean Bhutan show that during the three​-​hour  campaign, communities collected 783 kilograms of plastic waste, which would fill about 390 cement bags.

Thimphu, Paro, Punakha​,​ and Wangdue together produce about 10 truckloads of recyclable waste that comprise pet bottles, cardboard boxes and beer bottles.

Initiatives taken to save the environment are not keeping pace with the amount of waste we are generating.  Thimphu, which generates the maximum amount of waste among the dzongkhags, only now has a waste recovery centre to sort and recover recyclables. But the Memelakha landfill was bursting at its seams years ago. The thromde is planning to construct a compost plant there​,​ while the plant at Serbithang remains closed.

What do these instances mean when the country that’s lauded for it’s strong environmental polices is grappling with garbage and littering problems. The first thing a visitor to Bhutan notices and does not hesitate to point out is the litter strewn in town and along the hiking and trekking trails. Clean Bhutan records show that every week, about 2,600 pieces of pet bottles are collected from the trails of Takstang, Paro​,​ which when crushed​,​ fill about 120 bags.

The GNH survey reported a drastic change in the proportion of people who feel ‘highly responsible’ for conserving the natural environment between rural and urban areas in 2015 when compared to 2010. The proportion of rural people who feel ‘highly responsible’ has declined from 82.4 percent to 78.7 percent. It found 15.24 percent of the Bhutanese reporting litter and inadequate waste disposal sites as the main reason for discontentment, higher than their discontentment with noise, air pollution and crime and violence.

Bhutan spends 2.9 percent the GDP on environment protection​,​ according to the national statistics bureau. Whether this is enough to save the environment from the challenges the country is facing from developmental pressures is yet to be assessed. But when the country with the highest per capita water resource availability in the world is struggling to supply drinking and irrigation water to its people, it shows that we are not doing well.

Water stress and waste management are among the six main environmental issues confronting us today. And we have not done enough to address them.

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