What trash on Everest can teach us about tackling problem waste

A couple of weeks ago there was a flurry of stories about the rubbish at the top of Mount Everest. The situation is summed up by one of the Daily Mail’s long headlines – long enough that presumably you can just look at the pictures and skip the article itself: ‘The highest rubbish dump in the world: how big-spending climbers have turned Mount Everest into a ‘disgusting eyesore’ littered with discarded equipment and excrement.’

It’s a rather sad story, and a telling one. What had been a heroic achievement is now a consumer experience – an extreme one of course, but a consumer experience nonetheless. It’s very expensive to climb Everest, so these are wealthy adventurers trashing the place.

If Everest serves as a microcosm for environmental destruction, it’s also a good example of how to clear it up. The Nepalese government are trying to tackle the problem, and by looking at this very specific context, we can see lessons in how to address plastic pollution and waste more broadly. Here are three:

The polluter pays – first of all, if someone is creating the waste, they should be paying for the cost of cleanup. It cannot be free or there is no incentive to stop. This is the fundamental problem with climate change – carbon emissions aren’t priced in, so I get to emit them for nothing and someone else pays for it in some other part of the world. Nepal have introduced a trash deposit for expeditions. You have to pay a $4,000 fee before you climb the mountain. If you don’t bring down at least 8kg of extra rubbish each, you don’t get your money back.

Infrastructure matters – most ocean plastic comes from countries where people have consumer goods and all the packaging that comes with them, but don’t have proper waste collection. Just five countries account for half the problem, and those places need to invest in regular collection and waste processing. Everest is similar. It doesn’t have bins, so people have got used to just dumping stuff around the camp. (If people can’t be bothered to take their tent home after a festival, I can understand the temptation of lightening your load and leaving your wind-battered tent at base camp) The waste infrastructure looks very different on Everest, but it still matters: local authorities have placed canvas bags at the camps, and carry rubbish off the mountain by helicopter. Some kind of appropriate toilet facility might be a good idea next.

Give waste a value – waste clogs up rivers and ditches because it is worthless. If it was worth something, people wouldn’t throw it away, and would pick up any that they found. This is the logic of plastic bottle deposit schemes, which are in operation in various places around the world, though for some reason Britain is consulting on it at the moment as if it’s a new and radical idea. On Everest there are new measures to get people to carry their rubbish off the mountain responsibly, but of course there’s still tonnes of it there from earlier expeditions. So local authorities have given it a value: $2 a kilo, enough to incentivise Sherpas to load up and carry some on each trip back down the mountain.

Despite the negative headlines, the situation on Everest is improving. There are bad spots, but by and large it’s not as bad as you might have heard – at least according to Ben Fogle, who climbed it this year. And if we can tidy up Everest, we can tidy up anywhere.


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