With litter piling up, mountain tourism reaches a crossroad

Nepalese Himalayas

Nepalese mountaineer Nirmal Purja has spent years scaling the world’s highest peaks. During a seven-month stretch in 2019, he climbed all 14 of the world’s 8000m-plus mountains. The fastest anyone had ever accomplished the feat.

But during a recent visit to Nepal’s Mount Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest mountain, Purja wasn’t going for the summit. He was there to clean up piles of rubbish, including ropes and oxygen canisters, left behind by other climbers.

Purja, the star of a new Netflix documentary 14 Peaks, and his team would haul away 500kg of trash. They are now planning to climb another infamously messy peak, Mount Everest.

“I have seen first-hand the effect of climate change and waste in the Himalayas,” said Purja, who was recently named a Mountain Advocate for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “We want to protect and restore these sacred mountains for all those who call them home.”

In recent years, and in particular, during the COVID-19 pandemic, tourists have flocked to the world’s mountains, leaving behind piles of trash. A recent survey of 1,750 mountain enthusiasts from 74 countries found that 99.7 per cent of them saw litter and waste during a typical mountain trip. Most of this was plastics, organic waste and paper or cardboard, especially on or beside trails, near carparks or at resting places.

According to the survey, 60 per cent observed an increase in waste over the past five years, while over 75 per cent have spotted COVID-19-related litter, such as masks or hand-sanitizer bottles. The survey was carried out by GRID-Arendal, a non-profit environmental group, UNEP, the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm anti-pollution conventions and partners.

Downstream threat

While they appear imposing, mountain ecosystems are fragile, say experts. Rubbish is a threat to wildlife and pollutes water, posing a health risk to downstream communities.

This is an excerpt from an article by Matthias Jurek, originally published by the UNEP.

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