Waste on Everest has become a long-standing problem contributing to the notoriety of the whole mountain as ‘the highest waste dump in the world’. However, the main underlying question today is, how much waste is really in the region today?
Thanks to the sensationalistic approach of media, a vast amount of misinformation and hyperbole have dominated the narrative around Everest. Waste on the mountain is one of them with a litany of stories like ‘Everest is a waste dump’ or ‘trekkers have to walk over waste and human waste’. While there are instances of waste remaining from climbers due to unforeseeable circumstances such as avalanches and storms, it’s mostly restricted to the camps. For instance, at higher camps at almost 8000m, there might be some shredded tents frozen as a repercussion of unforeseeable weather conditions.
In the early years of Everest expeditions around the late 1980s and early 90s, Everest was indeed a mess. The actual problem was not that expeditions bring in huge amounts of supplies and gear, but rather what they do with the used material when you’re constantly pushing your limits 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. Further exacerbating the problem was the sheer number of expeditions. These historic attitudes coupled with an increase in visitor numbers – both climbers and trekkers – hence were the foundation of the waste problem on Everest.
Today, the situation on the mountain is much improved with rampant cleaning expeditions as well as the presence of strong local representation and, attitudinal and behavioral changes towards the abandonment of waste. At the forefront of waste management in Everest is the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC).
Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC)
The SPCC, a community-based NGO established by the local sherpa of the Everest region has been playing an integral role in shaping the face of the Everest region, through; the development of waste management infrastructures, integrating sustainable waste management by empowering and strengthening local participation, dissemination of public education, and finding opportunities for waste reduction, reuse, and recycling. The SPCC in the Everest region exemplifies the assertion that local NGOs empowered by the government can entail a positive impact on the region, placing decision-making closer to the people and encouraging a culture of participatory governance that is more responsive to local needs.
Garbage Deposit Scheme
Furthermore, as a response to the growing issue of waste, in 1993, the Nepal government introduced an environmental garbage deposit scheme (GDS) of US$4,000 per climber as an incentive for groups to repatriate their waste. By internalizing an environmental cost, the US$4,000 environmental deposit created an incentive for climbers to remove their waste. SPCC has been contracted by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation (MOCTCA) to supervise the implementation of GDS. Besides, SPCC under the MOCTCA also sets the climbing route through the Khumbu Icefall as well as assesses climbing season to check climbing permits, monitor illegal climbing, and implement waste management strategies at the base camps of the Khumbu area’s mountains and peaks including Mt. Everest.
Carry Me Back
Sagarmatha Next, based in the Khumbu region has been established with the aim to change the perception around waste and support local stakeholders such as SPCC for introducing sustainable solutions for waste management in the region. Among many programs, ‘Carry me back’ initiated by Sagarmatha Next is one of the innovative approaches that address waste management in the region. ‘Carry me back’ is a crowdsourced waste removal system designed to send waste to its rightful place where it can be recycled by utilizing the movement of locals and tourists. The SPCC segregates and shreds the waste to reduce the volume and packs them in the 1 kg-capacity carry-me-back bags, as well as operates the pick-up and drop-off stations.
Cash for Waste
Besides, the ‘Cash for Waste‘ started in 2008 by the Eco-Everest Expedition, mobilizes the mountaineers, guides, and staff already in the base camps and higher camps to retrieve waste as per their capacity by motivating them with a financial incentive such as 100 rupees/1 dollar per kilogram of waste.
Outlook for waste on Everest
With the new federal structure created in 2015, responsibility for waste management in the region has devolved to local governments, the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality. The devolution of central power to this local government has since then made a few significant changes such as introducing the region entrance fee (Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality) of NPR 2000 (20 US$) while entering the entire Khumbu region, abolishing the former TIMS (Trekkers Information Management Systems) card. This entails a lot of implications in society today. The common assertion is that the local government is the decision-making body. With this, there is more potential for the local body to encourage a culture of participatory governance and be more responsive to local needs such as waste management.
Furthermore, the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality has also signed an MOU with the embassy of India to construct Khumjung-Khunde Wastewater Management Project, to be built under the India-Nepal Development Cooperation with the financial assistance of the Government of India at a total estimated cost NRs.41.13 million. The construction of this project will leverage the effort of existing organizations such as SPCC to improve the health and quality of life of the people living in Khumjung village, Solukbumbu providing them with safe water and improved sanitation.
The Sagarmatha National Park that homes to Everest and all famous Everest trekking trails are one of the cleanest national parks, if not the cleanest in Nepal. Waste on Mt Everest has always been a management issue. The SPCC and several local organizations consulting and involving local experts and key stakeholders have rendered positive results.
Sagarmatha National Park, being the most visited tourist destination in Nepal, both for trekking and mountaineering purpose is going to receive more visitors in the coming years which could have more implications on the overall environment of the region. To envision the outlook of the region is to optimize the best usage of local capacity, collectively working for the common good of the region, local empowerment as well as the nation’s upliftment. The local capacity such as SPCC needs to be further strengthened through empowering local government, local institutions, and manpower to improve waste management.
All Photos from SPCC and Sagarmatha Next, used with permission.