There are a lot of beautiful things about Bhutan, and their trash collection is sadly not among those things. As Thimphu began to develop at breakneck speed it found itself sorely lacking in a trash collection system that could keep up with its growing waste. A dumpsite expected to fill up in ten years filled up in six. A collection system that took a few hours now takes days. Somehow twenty tons of garbage is now around fifty tons.
As someone who has never given our waste collection system much thought, it was shocking to see people burning their trash, throwing their trash on the sides of the road! It became more and more obvious as I worked with Thimphu City Corporation, that the mismanagement of the trash was actually a symptom of the rapid development of the city. The TCC (Thimphu City Corporation) is working very hard to develop a new collection system that actually standardizes and streamlines trash collection through a pilot program. They allot two bins for wet and dry waste, separate and compost the materials, and track the levels of material entering the system. They promote cleaning campaigns to try and raise awareness about proper waste disposal, ban unregulated dumping, and provide public waste bins (all new to Bhutan). Bhutan recognizes that is has a growing waste problem, and is actively trying to fix this issue.
What surprised me the most about Bhutan’s trash was actually not being addressed directly by these new programs. In Bhutan many people make their living off of this excess trash. They collect it, sort it, and recycle it through India, where scrap materials are gobbled up and reused in new products. The prices are fairly high, and the living is not a bad one. These people fly just under the radar of the municipalities, and have recently become a hot topic for development agencies such as the UN. They take out a large portion of waste before it even enters into the data stream, and collect revenue untraced in the system. They represent key statistics on paper, glass, plastic, wood, and metal levels in trash. This in a town that is always under construction leaves a lot to be discovered. They skew not only trash data but also construction data as the prices of some materials leads to thefts, mismanagement of materials and other headaches in the construction business.
They are also potential victims of the new cleaner campaigns, more efficient waste collection systems, and general trends to waste more responsibly. Families that hand the business of scrap collection to their children are handing them a dwindling revenue source, as fewer and fewer materials become available on the streets and in the dump. Plastics are being banned in grocery stores, cardboard frowned upon in transportation, and glass materials reused in the home. Cleaner streets may look more attractive to the tourists, but it also cripples an entire sector of work.
What I find interesting is how many other informal sector jobs are being made obsolete in the new management systems of Bhutan? Is the technically trained weaver pushing out the weaver who learned from their mother? Is the village handyman losing work to the big carpenters? What kinds of livelihoods are being reshaped by the more efficient systems slowly being implemented across Bhutan? And is more efficient always better? We should ask the scrap collectors first.