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From the plains to the mountains, plastic is now a familiar sight in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). Plastic is a popular medium to package food, water, and many household items. It is light, durable, water-proof, and sanitary. In geographically remote mountain settlements where transportation costs, especially if transported by air or on human- and animal-back, are calculated by weight, plastic bottles are preferred over glass.
What we do with plastic after we use it is crucial. In urban and semi-urban places, where a waste management system is usually in place, waste is collected at the household level and transported to a collection site where it is sorted for reuse or for dumping in a landfill. In rural areas, however, waste – especially plastic – is either burnt, or tossed out into surrounding land or water bodies. When plastic waste meets ‘nature’, the consequences can be catastrophic.
In line with World Environment Day 2023, there is a global intervention working to beat plastic pollution, but we must take steps at the local level in the HKH to minimise, and reverse, plastic pollution.
Every summer, thousands of women, men, and children make the arduous trip to the high Himalaya in search of ‘Himalayan gold’ – the caterpillar fungus, (Ophiocordyceps sinensis – a kind of entomopathogenic fungus, one that grows on insects) that fetches a price equivalent to the price of gold. Known as keera in Nepali, keera-jadi in Hindi, and yartsa gunbu in Tibetan, it is used in traditional Asian medicine to treat many ailments including anaemia, asthma, blood pressure, fatigue, and impotence.
Yartsa gunbu collectors live for approximately two months in temporary plastic tents, with up to nine persons – including adults and children – in a tent. Their food rations generally consist of instant noodles and pasta – packaged in plastic. Their source of energy is fuelwood, which is usually wet due to the humid weather during the collection season. Burning the plastic food wrappers with the fuelwood provides a double purpose – they function as effective fire-starters, and they also ‘solve’ the problem of waste disposal.
Burning plastic in a confined tent space means that its inhabitants are consistently inhaling plastic fumes. Many are not aware of the health problems associated with breathing in the fumes which are likely to cause respiratory problems, and birth defects, among others.
Improperly disposed plastic waste attracts wildlife. Elephants, wild pigs, foxes, and feral dogs have been known to consume plastic, and other waste materials. They are drawn to such waste especially for their salt content. Wildlife are known to visit natural (and also artificial) salt licks to supplement their diets with minerals. Elephants favour fast food including potato chips, Kurkure (a brand of a corn-based snack), and instant noodles, the plastic covers of which have been seen in their dung. They access these types of food either in open waste-dumps or in landfills.
This open landfill is now a popular foraging site for wild elephants | Photo: Kesang Wangchuk | ICIMOD
Disposing of waste in rivers is commonly practiced across the HKH. The flowing waters remove the ‘waste’ from its site of origin, hence the burden of having to manage the waste is removed. But the plastic waste becomes visible further downstream where the river flow is weak or absent.
Such plastic in water bodies breaks down into micro-plastics which is initially ingested by aquatic organisms, and subsequently by humans through the food chain. Plastic in water bodies can also strangle or injure aquatic animals.
Old clothes and plastic waste is littered below a natural hot-spring in the mountains | Photo: Janita Gurung | ICIMOD
We are breathing, eating, and sinking in plastics.
At the local level in the HKH, we must begin to implement three solutions :
In addition to beating plastic pollution, these solutions can also provide employment opportunities at the local level.
Beating plastic pollution requires us all to take collective action today!
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