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A system thinking approach to waste management

My major project (in one of the units) focused on the growing per capita solid waste in Bhutan’s capital city. I wanted to show how there is more to what we observe in the solid waste management issue than meets the eye. Looking at the issue through the system thinking lenses reveals various underlying factors that contribute to the problem. System thinking provides an overall perspective of what is really going on deep underneath, which can be best explained with the iceberg theory. 

Being the most populated city in the country, Thimphu faces a critical challenge of managing the solid wastes. Given that there is only a lukewarm interest by the private sector in waste-related businesses, it is a national concern. This is because Thimphu is the place that all tourists visit, and tourism is the second-highest source of domestic revenue


The iceberg theory advises us to view an issue through repeated events, their usual trends and the underlying systemic structures. It reminds us that what we see (the events) is only one-third of the reality. At the same time, the two thirds (patterns and structures) remain deep underneath just like the iceberg. Therefore, to conclude that the iceberg is what we see on the surface is risky assumptions. Same goes for a sustainability issue. 


Therefore, in looking at the solid waste management issue, I was able to create a mind-map of all possible factors that contribute to the problems. It forced me to dig deeper into many factors and their underlying causes. Systems thinking allowed me to discover various factors. For example, I realised how increasing recycling and composting initiatives can drastically reduce the amount of waste going to the landfills. 


Of various factors, I was able to identify the three most important ones that contributed to the issue. And I found that the three factors interacted with each other and also influenced the overall system. I also realised how the problem is magnified by the lack of recycling and composting initiatives. They are in turn caused by a lack of public education, absence of private sector interest in waste-related business and inadequate government funding in general. Lack of government funding results in inadequate waste literacy and discourages private initiatives. 


Therefore, by synthesising all these factors, I understood how all of them are interrelated and dependent on each other. Waste management is seen as the government’s role, and not many see their waste as their responsibilities. Most lack waste literacy and hardly understand the consequences of dumping their garbage in open areas. 


System thinking shows us what lies underneath the surface is much more profound than what is visible. Therefore, system thinking enables us to dig deeper into the causes and conditions that result in a situation. 


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