30 May - 5 June 2014 #709

Cleaning up Everest

Working quietly behind the scenes are Khumbu's citizens to keep the trekking trails in the region clean and trash-free
Matt Miller in KHUMBU

Most of the attention about environmental problems in the Himalaya seem to focus on garbage piling up on Mt Everest. Google it and see.

However, away from the media glare and working quietly behind the scenes are Khumbu's citizens to keep the trekking trails in the region clean and trash-free. The problem is not so much tourists, who mostly have the sense not to litter and throw trash around, but the Nepali support staff from the lower valleys employed by mountaineering and trekking expeditions.

Given that there are on average five porters for every climber, that means tens of thousands of extra people in the fragile environment in the Everest region. Despite this, however, the Everest trail is suprisingly trash-free.

The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) has been addressing the waste problem in the Everest region since 1991, and has become a model for advocacy and effective waste management solutions for not just the Sagarmatha National Park but for other trekking areas of the country.

There are two types of waste, burnable and non-burnable. A 15 minute walk from the SPCC offices in Namche Bajar, along a narrow trail hugging the steep hillside, is a building housing an incinerator for all burnable trash. The diesel operated incinerator has a capacity of burning an average of 30 kgs of burnable garbage in each cycle (45 minutes).

This week however it was not operating because it had run out of fuel, which has to be brought in by helicopter from Kathmandu. Further up the trail is the non-burnable waste collection center. The 20x7m pit is one third-full, and what to do when it fills up is still a problem without a solution, or funding.

The SPCC’s biggest accomplishment is that it is well-organised, and the challenge is advocacy both for local residents as well as Nepali and foreign visitors. The SPCC works closely with an "eco-club" in each Khumbu school. Partnering with teachers, it has added rubbish bins in all schools and educated students about disposal of glass/metallic waste and plastic/paper. So far, SPCC has built 53 rubbish bins in Khumbu (8 rubbish bins in school premises and the rest along the trekking routes). SPCC also works with porters and the need to use rubbish bins along the trails.

For each of the roughly 25 towns in the Everest region there is a waste management committee. The SPCC works with them for proper waste collection and disposal. Each has a designated space for burning their own trash, and collection pit for non burnable garbage since it is often too difficult to bring all waste to Namche Bajar.

Expeditions leave behind a lot of garbage on the classic route up Everest, and every year, there are several climbers who go up just to bring back the garbage. But this is mostly trash generated by mountaineers, and seen only by other climbers.

In order to control dumping on the world's highest mountain, all expeditions must get a 'garbage permit' from the SPCC. Along with a deposit, teams declare the materials and goods they are taking up from Base Camp with them. The goal is to account for everything from oxygen tanks to ketchup bottles, so that when the expeditions checks out from Base Camp, it needs SPCC to certify that they have brought everything back in order to get their deposit back.

Program Officer Kapindra Rai said that previously teams were responsible for packing their own trash out. But two years ago the SPCC changed its procedure, and they now take responsibility for taking the trash down to Namche Bajar.

Porters do the heavy lifting task of transporting trash from base camp as well as from the hotels in Namche Bajar. Although this year, Everest climbing was abandoned because of the deadly avalanche on 18 April, there is still far too much waste produced at Base Camp.

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Cleaning up Everest