Mount Everest is currently the highest mountain on Earth, measuring 8,848 m above sea level. It is a part of the Himalayas, which is a mountain range that stretches across Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mount Everest, however, is located on the border of China and Nepal. Initially, the massive mound of rock and snow only held the reputation of being the highest mountain in the world, but today, it is also known for being the highest polluted point on the planet.
Ever since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached its summit in 1953, around 6000 mountaineers have attempted to mount it. However, over the years, their journeys combined have made Mount Everest the highest dumping ground in the world.
Today’s post discusses just that. First of all, we’ll look at just how much trash the adventurers leave, then we’ll attempt to understand the reasons behind dumping garbage on the mountain, its impacts on the environment and community. Finally, we’ll see what measures are being taken to solve this ecological issue and look into the factors that limit the rectification of this problem.
Trash on Mount Everest: An Overview
Mount Everest, also known as Sagarmatha (meaning: forehead in the sky) in Nepal or Chomolungma (meaning: Goddess Mother of the world) in Tibet, is the mountain peak that every mountaineer wishes to ascend. Its reputation as the highest mountain on Earth has attracted hundreds of climbers from all around the world, from amateurs to experts, to the summit. During the mountaineering season, in spring, the number of enthusiasts increases massively. Sometimes up to 500 people in a single day. Many people just hike to the Everest Base Camp, while others don’t stop until they reach the peak.
Such difficult terrain doesn’t make the journey very easy. The climbers have to adjust to the altitude; freezing temperatures, the reduced levels of oxygen, lack of water and the minimal availability of food, among other things. Plus, the ascent takes a considerable amount of time.
Naturally, the climbers have to carry their own resources to survive during their journey. Like carrying warm clothes, tents, food, water, etc. They may then have what they need to survive, but there is no easy disposal of what they use, which eventually leads to the disposal of garbage into the environment.
Since the first ascent, thousands have tried to climb the mountain and each person has produced around 8 kg of waste on their journey. 8 kg is believed to be the average amount of waste that a person produces on their trip. Prior to the recent awareness and the initiatives taken to manage this waste, the garbage would simply be left behind to accumulate. Much of the trash can still be found today.
To get a better idea of just how much trash there is up there, let’s look at how much has already been removed. Earlier this year, a 47-day cleaning drive removed over 2.2 tons of trash from the Everest Base Camp.
In 2019, nearly 24,000 pounds or around 11 tons of garbage, which also included human waste, was cleaned. And yet garbage still remains in massive quantities despite all these cleaning initiatives.
In addition to that, a study from 2020 showed that samples of snow collected from the Base Camp had 79 particles of microplastics in every litre.
What is normally assumed to be a pristine and isolated area, in reality, is a mound of garbage full of human activity.
Now that we understand the extent of waste generated in the region, let’s look at what causes it in more detail.
Causes and Consequences of Pollution on Mount Everest
As we saw in the previous section, the root cause of garbage accumulation on Mount Everest is the poor disposal of waste. This is caused due to the increase in popularity of ascending the mountain and due to the increase in the number of amateur climbers who are attracted to the increased number of less-expensive tours to the peak. Their lack of knowledge and experience in the mountains is one of the main reasons for poor garbage disposal.
On their long journeys, the mountaineers are required to stay in several camps with the resources they carry for weeks on end to rest and adapt to their surroundings, before reaching the summit. It is during this time that most trash is left behind.
Here are the two types of life-threatening waste prevalent on the mountain. Below, the impacts on the biodiversity, environment and local community are also discussed:
The climbers spend around two months reaching the peak of Mount Everest every spring. Just as humans need to eat and drink, we also need to excrete. Now, the climbers may carry the necessary resources for survival but, they evidently do not have proper toilet facilities.
In the camps, however, there are big drums to collect the waste. Ideally, these drums are carried down to landfills at lower altitudes but, in reality, many of them are left behind in the camps.
When the climbers aren’t in these camps, they have no option but to relieve themselves in the mountains. They normally dig pits in the thick snow, relieve themselves and leave. Human excreta remains under the snow until the snow melts in the warmer seasons. Now, with global warming, the melting of snow has gained speed. Not just on Mount Everest but around the Himalayas and all the snow-capped mountains in the world.
Every season for the past six decades, around 500 to 700 climbers have added to the pile of human waste, polluting the pristine environment.
In addition to polluting the mountains, the disposal of human waste in this manner poses severe health risks as it increases the possibility of spreading diseases. When the ice melts, the water goes into the watershed, which acts as a source of water for the local communities living around Mount Everest. It is through this watershed that rainfall and ice melting from the mountains flow into rivers and streams. When ice is contaminated with faecal matter and the snowmelt reaches the watershed, the people dependent on this water source are supplied with contaminated water that could cause serious waterborne diseases like cholera and Hepatitis A.
Garbage such as plastics, metals, fabrics, etc.
The supplies that are required for basic survival are made of paper, metal, plastic, fabrics and chemicals.
Disposing garbage is a challenge in such a biome, so, ideally, all the waste generated is carried back to the starting point. But in reality, that is not the case and today one can see that the camps, in particular, are littered with oxygen cans, food wrappers, plastic bags, glass and plastic bottles, paper cups, old tents, scraps of climbing equipment and more. The amount of garbage is such that it is immeasurable, even for experts.
Plastics in particular are a major concern, especially since they’re in the form of microplastics. A study conducted in 2020, examined 19 samples of snow and stream water from several locations on Mount Everest and found that all of the snow samples had microplastics in them. Due to the type of polymers found, it was deduced that the sources of microplastics were clothing, climbing equipment and tents.
The study also revealed that the microplastics were especially present in lower altitude areas on the mountain. In places where human activity is highest. The overall amount found on this mountain also happened to be the highest amount to be found on any other mountain in the world.
Textiles have the ability to shed hundreds of microplastics in a matter of a few minutes. With its accumulation of these materials for decades, the number of fibres shed must be billions if not trillions.
Another study from the snow samples on Mount Everest found traces of per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), which are toxic chemicals that do not decompose easily and accumulate over time in humans and animals.
These chemicals can be found in the atmosphere but in this case they originated from weatherproof gear such as jackets, tents and other mountaineering equipment. This is because these toxic chemicals are used to treat these types of equipment to make them suitable for extreme climates and terrains.
Like human waste, garbage also gets frozen in ice. As the ice melts rapidly due to climate change, the pollution is brought down to lower altitudes, contaminating the waters. This doesn’t just impact the people dependent on these water sources but, also the marine life in the waters.
Additionally, exposure to certain PFAS chemicals poses health risks including higher levels of cholesterol, the higher possibility of having kidney disease, testicular cancer and even altering the enzymes in the liver.
Lastly, certain plastics, when exposed to direct sunlight, cause chemical reactions, emitting harmful greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming.
The issue doesn’t end here. Those who do carry their waste back to the base camp, believe that their waste is properly disposed of. But, it is only carried down to the nearest village, which is a one-hour walk away and emptied into a pit at the periphery. There is no other option as there are no waste management facilities yet in the area. The problem arises during the monsoon season when this waste is washed into the rivers and other waterways.
Measures Taken to Reduce Pollution on Mount Everest
Both Nepal and China have devised some ways to combat pollution on the mountain and they have more plans for the future as well.
First of all, in 1976, the Sagarmatha National Park, a protected area, was created by Nepal as a means to guard Mount Everest, the flora and fauna and the communities in the surrounding area. It was even enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. In that year, the park issued regulations for climbers to pack their waste. It is another thing that many do not obey this requirement.
In 1991, the Sherpa Pollution Control Committee was established. The committee employs people from the community to monitor the disposal of garbage and even organizes clean-ups. This committee is supported by political and religious leaders, entrepreneurs and also by the World Wildlife Fund USA.
Then, in 2014, Nepal issued a rule which requires the climbers to carry back approximately 8 kg of waste back to the base camp. To enforce this, the climber must deposit $4,000, which they’ll forfeit if they fail to obey the rule. Furthermore, since 2015, officials have been deployed at the base camp to ensure people follow this rule. A similar rule has been imposed on the Chinese side. If the climber falls to carry back 8 kg of waste, a fine of $100 per kilogram will be charged.
Subsequently, both countries have launched clean-up campaigns and actually removed several tons of garbage. In 2018, Nepal even banned single-use plastic in the region.
Nepal has even set up a system where the garbage is carried from the villages and transported to the capital to get it recycled. Additionally, it has even placed designated dumping sites and garbage bins along the path to the top.
Lastly, there are plans to establish a biogas plant in proximity to the Everest Base Camp to convert human waste into fertilizers and fuel using solar energy. A seemingly sustainable way to manage water contamination.
Problems with Implementing the Solutions
Though the measures taken by both countries seem promising, they’re not always feasible.
For example, when it comes to paying or forfeiting the amount for not carrying back 8 kg of waste, the climbers, particularly the foreigners, choose to pay the amount as it is nothing compared to the huge cost they bear to climb the mountain. After all, it costs around $20,000-$100,000 to climb Everest. Mountaineers do not have much incentive left to really care about the waste left behind after going through such a tedious and difficult journey.
Even if someone does care about their deposit or the payable amount, they tend to bribe the officials to let them go without penalty.
Although single-use plastic is banned, multiple plastics can be seen in the area. Not only because the climbers carry them, but also because the local communities use them. The numerous abilities that plastic offers, for such minimal costs, make it useful to people even in the remotest areas. This makes it nearly impossible not to use the material, despite its adverse impacts.
Lastly, when it comes to big projects for nature conservation and stricter regulations, the central governments hesitate as imposing too many regulations could reduce the number of tourists visiting the country. For a country like Nepal, which is dependent on the tourism sector, a decrease in the number of tourists would not only reduce the generation of wealth but also leave many unemployed.
In conclusion, this issue once again proves that balancing environmental and economic impacts has always been a struggle. However, with more sustainable methods and technologies, it is possible to reduce their negative impacts and balance the two.
To recap, we looked at just how polluted Mount Everest is, then we discovered the two main types of waste polluting the mountain and how it affects the environment and local communities. Next, we saw how governments are trying to reduce waste disposal. And finally, we learned that these measures aren’t always feasible. However, more research, education, awareness and motivation to be a part of the solution can gradually fix the damage done over the decades. That is if we start now.
Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Gurubacharya, B., 2015. Climbers leave a mountain of waste on Everest. The Washington Post, 03 September.
Napper, I. E. et al., 2020. Reaching New Heights in Plastic Pollution—Preliminary Findings of Microplastics on Mount Everest. One Earth, 3(1), pp. 621-630.
Paramaguru, K., 2014. Nepal to Mount Everest Trekkers: Pick Up Your Trash. Time, 03 April.
Washington Post, 2019. Mount Everest is warmer, polluted, scientists report. Washington Post, 6 April.
Waste360, 2018. National Campaign Attempts to Clean Up 200,000 Pounds of Trash from Mount Everest. Waste360, 23 March.