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The mammoth task to achieve ‘Zero Waste’ by 2030

By Tandin Wangchuk

A report by UNDP titled; Behavioral Insight- a Nudge towards circular economy states that with rapid socio-economic development the country has been seeing another growth, albeit an undesirable one,  waste management. It has become a scourge troubling many countries the world over, and a growing national concern.

The UNDP report publiched last month states that in a bid to tackle the challenge with lasting solutions, the Government has identified waste management as one of the flagship programs for its 12th Five Year Plan (2018–2023).

The program seeks to promote circular economy and implement targeted interventions aimed at reducing landfill waste disposal from over 80% to less than 20% by end of 2030. The country’s Waste Management Strategy 2019 aims to achieve ‘Zero Waste’ by 2030’

A study carried out by UNDP states the waste flagship blueprint found that 88 percent of waste flagship budget is concentrated on constructing waste facilities. Only 12 percent of the budget is dedicated for soft components, such as advocacy, awareness and integrating waste education in the curriculum.

“However, little has been done to understand people’s interaction and attitude towards waste, which is important for existing infrastructure to effectively function,” UNDP states.

UNDP states that this is exactly where the Accelerator Lab interventions come into play. The Lab has identified waste management as one of the frontier challenges with a focus on the human behavior side of the issue. In partnership with the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS) and Thimphu Thromde (municipality), the lab has launched a social experiment to understand households’ behavior in waste segregation at source as the first step in waste management strategy and a key component to effectively reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill.

The social experiment is being carried out to gather key insights from the citizens and households for the roll out of the waste flagship program. The approach provides a structured and robust method in understanding households’ values, beliefs, and individuals’ attitude towards waste, to help identify favorable attributes to nudge households to segregate waste at source.

A semi-structured ethnographic study was carried out in partnership with NECS and guided by the Behavior Insights Team, Australia to understand household’s waste segregation practices. The study was carried out to understand two research questions.

20 young Dessups (National Volunteer) supported the two- week long ethnographic study conducted in Changzamtog area within the municipality. The area was identified since it will be the first locality to witness the roll-out of the waste flagship program. Also, the locality has a good representative of households with different needs and socio-economic status. Enumerators collected information door-to-door and took pictures of bins in the 93 randomly selected households.

The ethnographic study reiterated the graveness and urgency of the waste issue. Four key findings strongly emerged from the survey: limited knowledge especially regarding hazardous waste, absence of three colored bins at the household level, limited feedback households receive on their waste segregation habits and inconsistent waste collection services, which is disrupting good segregation behaviors.

Additional insights from the study reveal the that waste segregation is not an issue, but quality of waste segregation is.

“While, there has been practice of waste segregation into “dry” and “wet” bins by households, there are clear issues around quality of segregation. Many households were not able to correctly classify hazardous and dry waste. For instance, during the study, most households mentioned that they discard baby diapers and sanitary napkins together with their dry waste,” it states.

Existing waste collection practices of dry and wet waste on dedicated days has encouraged people to segregate. However, the study found services related to hazardous waste lacking. Households in general seemed to be unaware of three categories of waste segregation.

Illegal dumping has been found to a cause of dispute between neighbors, and between household and waste collectors. There were many accounts where neighbors complained against each other’s waste dumping practices. It was also reported that often households would get into a spat with waste collectors or vice versa for not segregating waste. On deeper reflection, the issue boiled down to people’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards waste.

The study also revealed that most apartments in Changzamtog store their dry waste in balconies and corridors owing to limited space in their apartments. Households also re-use old sacks, cartoons and plastic bags as it does not take up space and can be discarded along with the waste.

Households’ waste is primarily managed by family members who stay at home. The respondents reported that usually mothers and wives staying home segregated, discarded and managed their household waste. In some households, it was the grandparents who took care of the chore.

UNDP also revealed that informal waste pickers and scrap dealers also play a key role in waste recovery. Some households were seen segregating and giving waste of some value to the informal waste pickers. Waste such as pet bottles, cardboard boxes, beer bottles were picked up by the informal waste pickers.

However, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the scrap dealers have stopped collecting waste as they are unable to access scrap market across border due to movement restriction.

Waste issue is deeper and requires a systemic approach: a collective intelligence effort

UNDP further states that  households’ cannot be blamed exclusively for not segregating waste? It states that issues with waste segregation is a systemic challenge which requires a portfolio of solution. Ethnographic survey also demonstrates that while segregation of waste is an issue, this behavior is not only driven by internal factors like mindset and attitudes.

External factors, such as timely and effective collection, confidence and trust in the system for effective recycling and waste recovery downstream also shape the household behaviors. An example could be households complaining about infrequent waste collection timing and the capacity of garbage trucks which gets filled soon.

“Consultations with waste collectors revealed much more deeper issues. Delays of garbage trucks were attributed to traffic congestion, breakdown of garbage trucks, inadequate number of garbage trucks and lack of manpower in terms of truck drivers,” it states.

UNDP also conducted a stakeholder meeting to seek a holistic picture of the waste system and to understand issues from the service providers’ perspective. The meeting further helped map out the role of informal scrap dealers and waste pickers in the waste system.

UNDP stated that a need for a waste recovery facility was felt since all waste from drop-off centers, transit stations (Greener Ways) and households are being dumped at the landfills.

Further, the lab will work on step 2 and 3 of the experiment. Having learnt what triggers people to behave in a certain manner through stage one, the lab will now focus on what decision will be made post trial/experiment and how would the trial/experiment help decision makers in making those decisions.

In addition, Randomized Controlled Trial will be applied for the experiment/trial towards understanding household waste segregation behavior will also be conducted.

Finally, Accelerator Lab Bhutan hopes to complete the social experiment by April 2021.

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