In 1924 George Leigh Mallory stated, “the highest of the world’s mountains, it seems, has to make but a single gesture of magnificence to be the lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy”. In 1953, after making the first successful ascent of Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, Sir Edmund Hillary expressed his view, pride, and relief by saying: “Well, we knocked the bastard off“. Much later, in 1969, Barry Bishop famously stated, “South Col is the world’s highest junkyard“.
It is in this context of magnificence and junkyard that this study seeks to explore the issue of waste management on Mt Everest. With these three quotes, the perception of Mount Everest, and other high mountains, has changed radically. Today, waste on Mt Everest has become a long-standing problem; both biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste have contributed to the notoriety of the whole mountain as ‘the highest trash dump in the world’. In response to the growing issue of waste, the Nepal government introduced an environmental garbage deposit scheme (GDS) of US$4,000 per climber. Despite the GDS, abandonment of waste still occurs on a regular basis. In 2019, for example, the Nepal government cleared 9,979 kg of waste from Mt Everest.
The actual problem is not that expeditions bring in huge amounts of supplies and gear, but rather what they do with the used material when they are on the mountain. Mountaineers have traditionally been cavalier with their waste. ‘An out of sight, out of mind’ mentality has long dominated the waste scenario on Everest since waste produced on the mountain is out of sight to the public, it is out of the mind to the climbers that produce it. Further exacerbating the problem is the sheer number of current expeditions. In 2018, there were 800 summits, surpassing the previous record of 667 summits in 2013, followed by 660 in 2019. Mount Everest had been climbed by 6,554 people as of August 2020.
The Response to the Problem
In 1993, the Nepal government introduced an environmental GDS of US$4,000 per climber as an incentive for groups to repatriate their waste. By internalizing an environmental cost, the US$4,000 environmental deposit created an incentive for climbers to remove their waste. Under the GDS, expeditions have to submit a list of food and equipment being taken to the mountain to the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) along with the US$4,000 deposit per climber to the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MOCTCA).
Eight kilos is the amount of waste estimated to be produced by one climber. The scheme relies on the requirement that each expedition group must remove at least 8 kg of waste per climber, comprising disposable (burnable and biodegradable) and non-disposable: climbing gear, accessories, tents, cans, bottles, flasks, EPI gas cylinders, batteries, etc. On submitting their waste to the SPCC check post, climbers are provided with a garbage clearance certificate that authorizes their deposit refund. However, if they submit less than the 8 kg per climber for a full deposit return, climbers are entitled to a partial refund depending on the weight of garbage submitted.
Evaluation of Garbage Deposit Scheme (GDS)
Despite the GDS, abandoned waste is still regularly found. The GDS has been criticized by some climbers, e.g., “Efforts are limited, and waste-management rules aren’t well-enforced”. The GDS has also been criticized for ‘lacking clear instructions’ and ‘lack of effective enforcement’. Considering a ‘guided climb’ to Mt Everest can cost as much as $100,000 per climber, a US$4,000 garbage deposit may feel like ‘tip money’. In addition, some large, financially well-off expeditions (i.e. sponsored ones), or expeditions from nations with poor environmental considerations (i.e. Eastern Europe and Asia), may view the deposit as a sunk cost of climbing the mountain – a fee to leave materials behind.
For several years, there have been calls for the government to intervene with a GDS implementation on Mt Everest. However, all in vain.
The findings gathered through a study conducted about the GDS reflect the concerns of all stakeholders involved in mountaineering. At its foundation level, the GDS is a waste management scheme, but its smooth operation relies on factors that are more than just filling in the paperwork and submitting the garbage deposit. There are environmental, cultural, and economic challenges to the waste issue on Mt Everest. The results suggest that the GDS has not delivered the expected outcome for waste management on Mt Everest. Barriers that contribute to the failure of the GDS have appeared in the literature including the technical competency of policymakers, stakeholder non-compliance, organizational inefficiency, and loopholes in mountaineering rules. Barriers identified in this study include resource and funding constraints.
The study’s findings highlight the challenges associated with the GDS’s transition from a high-level aspiration to actual management and implementation. Though many have praised the rationality of the GDS, implementation has proved a significant challenge. The following section provides an in-depth evaluation of the GDS’s characteristics in terms of three issues: 1. Goal and objectives; 2. Management; and 3. Implementation.
1. Goal and Objectives
With the development of the GDS, it was the government’s environmental aim to develop and operate a waste management system on Mt Everest. As one government representative emphasized, the goal and objective was “to implement a waste management system, to ensure that our environmental performance is regularly reviewed and publicised and to demonstrate our commitment to continual environmental improvement in our Himalayas”.
This study has revealed that the GDS was the result of an ‘incomplete contextual understanding of waste problems on Everest’, predominantly contributed to by two factors: a lack of research into the problem context; and incomplete or low levels of understanding of the anticipated impacts of the policy. For instance, the rule requiring 8kg of waste needing to be brought back was not based on any empirical assessment, but rather on a rough estimate. These findings claimed a ‘lack of initial contextual research’ and ‘poor credibility of information’ are barriers to effective policymaking in Nepal.
The study indicates that the goal and objectives of the GDS were not ‘revised’, ‘updated’, or ‘publicized’ among the mountaineering fraternity. It is essential to have the GDS revised because revising the goals of environmental policy is beneficial in identifying the activities that need closer attention to minimize damage to the environment, continually improve environmental performance, and positively enhance the environment.
Environmental management in Nepal lacks policy revision, reinforcing this study’s findings.
Most informants touched on the issues of accountability, organizational inefficiency, and a lack of cooperation from all sectors; political will among local mountaineering sections is a requirement for effective management of the GDS. Research in other developing countries has found barriers to effective waste management that resonate with the GDS: corruption; lack of consequences for non-compliance with the rules; poor governance; insufficient information on regulations; and a lack of clear targets in the strategic framework.
As mentioned by one climber, “just attaching GDS with the mountaineering rules alone does not result in effective management”. Ongoing political will and support from the mountaineering fraternity are essential. At the highest level, political support for the GDS is crucial for setting the strategic direction, securing planning resources, championing environmental requirements with stakeholders, and enforcing effective management. However, political challenges can be monumental. Nepal’s historical problem of political instability and the government changing every few years have only obstructed the management of policies such as the GDS. The underlying political instability over the last seven decades has become a formidable barrier to effective policy management. It is even more so in the past three decades, paralleling the GDS’s initiation in 1993; policy interventions such as the GDS have largely been ineffective in terms of delivering their intended outcome because of poor management.
A lack of cooperation among stakeholders associated with the GDS, especially between the government and the mountaineering fraternity (climbers, expedition operators, and guides) has contributed to the GDS’s ineffectiveness. This is evident through informants’ responses such as: “I think Liaison officers are a huge part of the problem in this whole process because they are supposed to be the liaison between expedition and the government.” The lack of a government partnership in working with local stakeholders, especially through liaison officers’ non-compliance in fulfilling their duties, represents the ineffective coordination by the Nepali government in implementing the GDS.
Furthermore, climbers, expedition operators, guides and the public sector (SNPBZ, NMA, MOCTCA), and community-based organizations like SPCC, are responsible for the effective implementation of the GDS. As mentioned by the majority of informants, SPCC is the most active because it is a community-based organization established and run by the local Khumbu community. According to the informants interviewed, SPCC, within its available resources, has continued to build initiatives such as expanding its temporary office to camp 2 for GDS operations and building infrastructure that fosters the proper implementation of GDS and creates more awareness among climbers. However, SPCC has also been subject to several constraints: insufficient resources, funding, and capacity.
Since 2015, under the new federal system in Nepal, the local level government – Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality – has the ultimate responsibility for waste management in the Khumbu region. This includes the effective implementation of the GDS. Though stakeholders are hopeful that the country’s transition to a federal democratic republic through this new governance might aid in strengthening local policies such as the GDS on Mt Everest, local government is surrounded by challenges that will very likely persist and even intensify unless the central government acts effectively through communication and coordination among the three tiers of government (local, provincial and federal) regarding the functional division of power and authorities to ensure full compliance by stakeholders such as liaison officers.
Nepal’s federal government decentralization strategy is not sufficient to implement and monitor the GDS for two reasons: first, the country has just been introduced to this new federal system and is ‘still struggling to fully grasp the new model of governance’ and, secondly, local government’s priority has been more towards other issues such as fighting COVID-19, road expansion and tourism growth.
Implementation of the GDS is of ‘pivotal concern’ and its successful realisation relies on meeting key conditions – thus, effective implementation of the GDS is ‘decidedly a complex endeavour’. All informants agree that effective, successful GDS implementation is imperative to solve the waste issue on Mt Everest.
The regulations around mountaineering that involve the GDS as stated by an informant, “In an ideal world would be managed by experts”. “The lack of expert knowledge” in advising and enforcing proper waste management rules for the government has contributed to the “existing waste issue on Mt Everest”, claimed a mountaineer. The country’s available technical and management capacity is not enough to meet the implementation challenges of the GDS. SPCC has been scrutinized for a lack of human resources for planning, implementation, management, and supervision of the legal requirements. The Ministry of Tourism, which is responsible for the implementation of the GDS, also lacks relevant experts.
Secondly, the implementation of the GDS has been hampered by the lack of inclusion of stakeholders in the decision-making table such as mountaineers, guides, and operators from the decision-making table. Such exclusion of concerned stakeholders as mentioned above has not only derailed the building of effective GDS implementation but has escalated in also contributing to the failure of the GDS.
Potential Recommendations: Guidelines for Overcoming the Garbage Deposit Scheme’s Challenges
Waste management on Mt Everest is very much a local issue. Local people have a vested interest in keeping their environment clean, therefore allocating more power and authority to local people might be beneficial. Local government has to acknowledge that it is elected to address everything that is needed by both the local population that has elected them and be able to tackle issues related to mountaineering and GDS implementation as the region known for Mt Everest is always going to have these problems. Local government has to acknowledge responsibility for making plans and taking action to ensure that those two can coexist, where benefits are earned, but the side effects are handled.
Liaison officers have been unanimously pinpointed as one problem in the failure of the GDS because of their incompetency and lack of experience, and corruption when working in the mountain environment. Instead of having liaison officers appointed by bureaucrats in Kathmandu, appointing experienced local Sherpa climbers could aid the effective functioning of the GDS.
Sherpa climbers are suitable for this task. First, unlike current liaison officers, Sherpa climbers are experienced, can go up the mountain to higher camps and not just stay in Base Camp. Secondly, they would understand the issues concerning the mountain and climbing. Using local Sherpa climbers as liaison officers could be very effective and could offer a developed plan for mountaineers and guides to work within the system. Those people are local, hence have more understanding, ownership, and enthusiasm for keeping their mountain clean.
Though few respondents acknowledged being invited to the discussion on initiating mountaineering rules, the invitation to such discussion was limited to only a few visits. Like in China, Nepal could benefit from integrating climbers and operators in the feedback loop when any waste management programmes on Mt Everest are initiated, mostly to give the Ministry information on whether the designed programme is practical and effective, and how it might be improved. A few operators expressed contentment with the way Chinese officials have handled the waste issue on their side by incorporating feedback and the experiences of operators and climbers.
A renowned mountaineer said, “I was part of the feedback loop in China when they implemented their new rules for garbage management. We have always been one of the first teams to get informed about, give them feedback on how it works, how it could be improved”. This could be done by choosing Nepal-based operators or international expedition groups to test and pioneer new regulations.
Finally, a better approach to waste management on the mountain could be to introduce a ‘garbage fee’ per party rather than the refundable deposit that the government can charge per head. This could have multiple benefits including providing a dedicated funding programme for a planned waste management programme. SPCC has been lauded for its efforts so far. However, it has also been under major scrutiny for lacking competent human resources and adequate funds to operate the GDS effectively at the higher camps. Strengthening SPCC’s capacity to operate the GDS through a ‘garbage fee’ could aid infrastructure development, increase SPCC’s staffing levels and help build its budget to run the waste management programme smoothly.
These options could be an avenue for future research and researchers to investigate. It was apparent during the data collection stage, how cultural, social, and local context can influence the determination of the success of the GDS. In addition to these potential options, there is space to reorient the focus of future research into understanding and investigating ‘cultural shift’ or ‘local ownership’ to examine how such constructs and relationships to the environment might help to better define waste management and approaches that might improve it on Mt Everest.
The intention behind the establishment of the GDS has been appreciated, however, it has failed to deliver the intended result of combating the waste issue on the mountain. Though the GDS has helped spread awareness among mountaineers and created a binding factor for mountaineers to be held responsible and accountable, the weaknesses of the GDS outweigh the strengths. The failure of the GDS has been attributed to multiple factors such as a lack of experts, competent decision-makers, organizational inefficiency, stakeholder accountability, and funding constraints.
Waste on Mt Everest is a management issue; decision-makers should consult and consider involving experts and key stakeholders in the making changes to the GDS such as introducing a non-refundable garbage fee or employing local Sherpas as liaison officers for expedition teams, and ensuring the suggestions put forward by these stakeholders are properly adopted. Involving stakeholders in this way can enhance public and local support for the GDS programme and effectively reduce the possibility of conflict in its implementation.
The local capacity such as SPCC, needs to be strengthened through empowering local government, local institutions, and manpower to improve Mt Everest waste management since GDS is a local issue. Political instability, a major barrier to effective GDS management, needs to be amended through honest, committed political leadership to ensure political stability to adapt to GDS for strengthening waste management on Mt Everest.