Captured on Film: Bhutan Forced to Invent Waste Industry as Culture Westernizes

Captured on Film: Bhutan Forced to Invent Waste Industry as Culture Westernizes

What the general public in the United States knows about Bhutan would likely fit into a thimble—with room to spare.

You might be aware that this tiny Buddhist kingdom of 754,000 souls in Southeast Asia is wedged between China and India. And, you might have heard that earlier this month its ragtag soccer team, consistently ranked 209th out of 209 national teams, advanced to the second round of World Cup Qualifying by outscoring Sri Lanka in consecutive matches. Or, you might be vaguely familiar with the gross national happiness quotient that government officials measure while shaping a multi-party democracy.

But who knew that this Himalayan paradise now has tremendous trouble with trash?

An audience of about 250 in Washington, D.C., was enlightened about this predicament last Saturday as part of the 23rd annual Environmental Film Festival, which runs through March 29. Two films screened at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall provided a snapshot of how the Bhutanese have begun wrestling with litter in a place where an infrastructure for waste management barely exists. Afterward, attendees had the opportunity to quiz the filmmakers at the event.

In the first documentary, “Boy of Good Waste,” Bhutanese director Dechen Roder tells the story of Tshering Chojur, a plucky 20-year-old high school dropout who was dismayed with how the nonbiodegradable litter from a burgeoning 21st century consumer culture was soiling the landscapes he cherished.

Instead of sinking into despair, he rented a truck and began befriending rural residents around the central Bhutan community of Bumthang, convincing them to let him buy the mounds of plastic and metal flotsam and jetsam they jettisoned near their homes.

In the film, he explains that he doesn’t feel dirty or stigmatized loading his truck with shoes, rubber, tin roofing, cardboard, bottles, lawn chairs, metal barrels and other detritus. Every couple of months, he would make the two-day drive to India on winding, dusty roads to trade his treasures for cash.

Roder, a rookie director when she made the film in 2005, says in an interview with Waste360 that she was inspired by Chojur’s persistence when she first encountered him in a village in the remote Tang Valley.

“He was wearing jeans and collecting all of this trash,” she says, adding that it was somewhat surreal to have her film shown in Washington, D.C. “I had to find out what this Westernized young man was doing way out there in a place that takes three hours to reach on foot.”

The broadcast of a “Boy of Good Waste” on national television may well have energized another youthful innovator, Karma Yonten, to launch what is considered to be Bhutan’s first waste management company in the capital city of Thimphu in 2007. He picked up tips and guidance by studying the industry in Hong Kong.

Yonten’s business, Greener Way, is one of the stars of the second film, “Made in Bhutan.” The film, produced in 2013, features several of the 76 countrywide startups that have received a financial boost in the form of loans from the Loden Foundation, an organization with headquarters in Bhutan and the United Kingdom that is dedicated to encouraging entrepreneurship with an ethical bent.

The government is intent on creating an enterprising culture in a country where people have traditionally relied on government jobs for income. Though the jobless rate nationwide is relatively low, Bhutan has a glut of educated young people willing to take risks in the nascent private sector.

Greener Way not only collects and separates domestic waste and recyclables but it also educates the public about the three R’s and turns organic waste into compost. Somewhat surprisingly, Yonten and his employees still have to follow Chojur’s model and haul their bounty to northern India. While Bhutan has the capacity to collect much of its waste and segregate recyclables, the country is not yet capable of processing that goldmine of plastic, paper and metal.

Since undertaking his ecological adventure a decade ago, Chojur has opted out of the trash business. He’s now a professional tour guide.

Yonten, however, is sticking with it. He’s branched out from his headquarters in western Bhutan and expanded into the eastern and southern reaches of the country.

Clearly, as one of his comments in the film indicates, he’s found his calling as a garbage man extraordinaire instilled with Buddhist principles: “I think once you start loving your profession, that’s it in life.”

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