The goal was ambitious: making Bhutan one of the cleanest countries in the world. We’ve had a good start. But it is easier to get people to pick up garbage on a single day. It is easier because you see the results immediately. You get a sense of accomplishment within an hour or two, and therefore the motivation to complete the job is strong.
The difficult part is getting people to sustain the effort. We cannot have cleaning campaigns every day or every week. If cleaning campaigns become mandatory, people would become resentful, and clean their surroundings only because they’ve been told to do so.
The goal is to get people to not only clean their surroundings willingly, but to stop littering in the first place. Changing habits take time.
The question is why are we littering more. At one point of time, almost every container, be it a plastic bottle or a can, was reused in the kitchen or the garden. Plastic bags and paper were stored to be used to wrap something later. We found utility in waste.
Today, the scenario is different. We’re wealthier and spurred by commercialisation and consumerism, we’re buying more. Because we possess more today, we are also wasting more.
While buying more wisely is a personal choice, how we dispose of waste should not be.
It is the thromdes and dzongkhags that have to ensure that the waste collection system in their respective areas are adequate and efficient. If that means privatising the waste collection system, then the responsibility shifts to adequate monitoring of that waste collection system. Today, a common reason cited for dumping waste indiscriminately is inadequate collection and disposal systems.
Once this is in place, then those who continue to violate the rules deserve to be penalised.
However, the mounting waste problem should not only be limited to consumers and authorities. Manufacturers must also get involved. Bhutan is pursuing a GNH development philosophy, it is only reasonable to expect our manufacturing companies to do their part.
Those companies that produce PET bottles, and other kinds of items that are found littering our streets, paths, villages and forests, should be willing to take back these items so that it can be recycled. For instance, the Happy Chips company has set a precedent and buys back its plastic wrappers. Others can follow this example.
We’re heading in the right direction. Waste management is being rationalised, and in some areas privatised. More waste is being recycled. But much more needs to be done to make us one of the cleanest countries in the world.
The Prime Minister meeting with local representatives to increase community involvement in sustaining the campaign should pay off. Assigning cabinet ministers to certain areas is another great move. If more people can see examples of how our senior officials keep their areas clean, and how they segregate and reduce waste generation, nothing like it.
The Thimphu city experiment, if its succeeds, will be replicated nationwide, and in a few years an ambitious goal would be realised.