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Trash on Everest. This #WorldEnvironmentDay, it’s time to clean up our act

Izabella Koziell

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Photo: Martin Edström/Sagarmatha Next

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Three actions to #BeatPlasticPollution this World Environment Day

Nowhere, it seems, is safe from the rising tide of plastic pollution: even earth’s highest mountain. This time last week – as local communities, climbers and dignitaries made their way to Everest to mark the 70th anniversary of the first ascent, and ICIMOD launched our new #SaveOurSnow campaign – a video showing mountains of plastic, amid other rubbish, left at Base Camp went viral.

But could ours be the generation that turns the tide on plastic? As negotiators leave Paris, having agreed to craft a draft of an internationally legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution, and the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day calls for collective action to beat it, there’s every reason for hope.

As importantly, there’s every reason for us to take action: the plastic industry is not only the fastest growing source of industrial greenhouse gases in the world, but plastic waste hugely aggravates the existing problems of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, as shown by research carried out by ICIMOD’s South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE). Here’s how:

  1. climate: solid waste – much of it plastic – clogs drainage systems and increases the disruptive flooding unleashed by the more frequent and intense rainfall events that global temperature rises trigger.
  2. biodiversity – plastic waste, which can take hundreds of years to decompose, chokes waterways and leaches harmful chemicals into soil and water affecting terrestrial and aquatic life, ecosystems and human health.
  3. pollution – microplastics contaminate our food, our drinking water, and the air we breathe, and burning of plastics releases toxic gases like dioxins, and mercury, contributing to air quality that in the HKH often already exceeds safe levels.

Recent ICIMOD fieldwork found undigested plastic in the faeces of wild animals such as elephants and boar in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. Last year, our colleagues reported on the scale of the problem in Langtang National Park, where wild and domestic herbivores, running from yaks, mules, horses, blue sheep, and the goat-like Himalayan tahr and goral are ingesting plastic from waste dumps.

So what can we do about it? Anti-plastics campaigners talk about the three ‘r’s:

  1. Refuse: carry a fabric tote, switch to solid shampoo – in short, just say no to single-use plastics whenever you can
  2. Reduce: when it’s impossible to eliminate plastic altogether, use as little as possible
  3. Reuse: keep unavoidable plastics out of landfill, as long as possible; separate your waste and compost as much as possible.
Photo: Deependra Tandukar | ICIMOD

Recycling should be a last resort as it uses further unnecessary energy and can be more toxic. What’s needed instead is a system response to plastic pollution – one where less plastics are produced, and there is less packaging on everything.

As well as individual actions, our workplaces are great places to push for progress on plastics, for instance, by leveraging our procurement processes to push for change within supply chains and by banning the use of plastics for work events. Our recent workplace ‘haat bazaar’ (market of fresh produce) from ICIMOD’s Living Mountain Lab at Godavari made the change from plastic bags to paper.

Using paper bags
Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.

A recently published landmark study by the Earth Commission quantifying safe and just Earth system boundaries for climate, biodiversity and pollution, shows how most have been breached. This exemplifies how human activity is taking colossal risks with the future of civilisation and all life on earth. Taking transformative action to avoid irreversible tipping points is crucial – with plastic pollution just the tip of the iceberg.

As UNEP argues, plastic pollution is preventable. This World Environment Day, let’s raise the voice of the HKH to push for companies, governments and investors to change legislation and supply chains, by all sharing one photo on social media tagged #beatplasticpollution, of either:

With even Chomolungma / Sagarmatha now awash with trash, it’s time to clean up our act.

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