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Beat Plastic Pollution

David James Molden

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The world united around the slogan “Beat Plastic Pollution” on World Environment Day. The slogan, motivated by increasing awareness of the vast volume of plastic – discarded, bottles, bags, straws, and discarded items – that reach the world’s oceans, draws attention to the impact of plastic on aquatic life. Let us take a moment to reflect on the relevance of the theme to our mountains.

As mountain areas change, as manufactured goods and visitors from outside flood mountain villages, towns, and trekking routes in increasing numbers, many places find themselves overwhelmed by indiscriminately discarded garbage. From the kora around Mt Kailash to the slopes of Mt Everest, the natural beauty of these landscapes are blighted by unsightly piles of wrappers, bottles, bags, and other garbage. The problem is even more acute in our cities.

Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.

Some of the garbage from our mountain areas make it into our river systems and eventually to the oceans. The bits that stay behind in the mountains also cause severe problems – ranging from local soil and water pollution to dangerously high levels of air pollution resulting from emissions caused by burning plastics. Unfortunately, the practice of setting piles of garbage on fire is very common in the region and often done in the mornings and evenings when smoke spreads horizontally, into homes and lungs. Burning plastic releases large quantities of toxins as well as black carbon, as we recently discovered in a study coordinated by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Black carbon warms the atmosphere and contributes to the melting of Himalayan glaciers and snowfields.

The problem and its solutions can be found at several levels. First, garbage is poorly managed in many of our communities. Compostable and non-compostable materials are not separated. Collection is unreliable and insufficient, so that much of the garbage ends up piled on street sides where they burned. That garbage that is collected often ends up in poorly managed landfills that leach out dirty water and emit large amounts of methane into the air, which also contributes to climate warming. ICIMOD’s Transboundary Landscape Programme has been working with communities around Mt Kailash to set up locally managed garbage management and sanitation solutions.

Some of the garbage from our mountain areas make it into our river systems and eventually to the oceans. The bits that stay behind in the mountains also cause severe problems – ranging from local soil and water pollution to dangerously high levels of air pollution resulting from emissions caused by burning plastics. Unfortunately, the practice of setting piles of garbage on fire is very common in the region and often done in the mornings and evenings when smoke spreads horizontally, into homes and lungs. Burning plastic releases large quantities of toxins as well as black carbon, as we recently discovered in a study coordinated by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Black carbon warms the atmosphere and contributes to the melting of Himalayan glaciers and snowfields.

The problem and its solutions can be found at several levels. First, garbage is poorly managed in many of our communities. Compostable and non-compostable materials are not separated. Collection is unreliable and insufficient, so that much of the garbage ends up piled on street sides where they burned. That garbage that is collected often ends up in poorly managed landfills that leach out dirty water and emit large amounts of methane into the air, which also contributes to climate warming. ICIMOD’s Transboundary Landscape Programme has been working with communities around Mt Kailash to set up locally managed garbage management and sanitation solutions.

Second, there is a strong need for increased awareness and behavioural change. The theme for World Environment Day this year discourages single-use plastic items. There are easy alternatives to using disposable cups, plates, cutlery, and straws, and plastic shopping bags. It usually takes very little effort for someone to use a more sustainable alternative. What is needed is awareness and a willingness to change habits.

Third, businesses can steer people towards more sustainable behaviour through their products and pricing. Often, the amount of packaging on any product can easily be decreased without compromising the product itself. Hotels can provide bulk shampoo instead of small single-use bottles. Increasing numbers of shops do not give out plastic bags for free anymore.

Fourth, local and national governments have a lot of power to change individuals’ behaviours to decrease the production of plastic waste. Increasing numbers of places are banning single-use plastic and plastic bags outright while in other places, governments have mandated that consumers pay extra for them.

As an intergovernmental organization working on issues of environment and sustainability from the high Himalaya all the way down to the oceans, ICIMOD needs to set an example. As we mark World Environment Day, ICIMOD bans all single-use plastic and all open fires from the ICIMOD campus as well as from all ICIMOD-organized events. We encourage all ICIMOD staff to pledge to do the same in their homes.

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