Into Thin Air: What Trekking To Sandakphu Taught Me About The Garbage Crisis In The Himalayas

When my friends suggested a trek, I jumped at the idea. It would be my first time hiking in the Himalayas. We chose the Sandakphu - Phalut trail, an old and much-hiked one which crisscrosses India and Nepal, because it affords some stunning panoramas of four of the world’s tallest peaks, and snakes through rhododendron-covered hillsides and picturesque alpine villages.

With a proliferation of commercial outfits offering professionally conducted hiking tours for city dwellers, the number of travellers heading into the hills is only seeing a marked increase. Being accessible by road has meant that Sandakphu also gets a lot of vehicular traffic. Teahouses and shops along the way sell packaged snacks and refreshments to travellers. Combined, these factors have led to a spike in the garbage on the Sandakphu-Phalut, mounting the pressure on the fragile ecosystem. Along with the problem of managing food and human waste, there is the creation of new waste streams in the form of non-biodegradable packaging, consumer goods, sanitary and e-waste - all of which the rudimentary infrastructure of the mountains is ill-equipped to handle.

The trek to Sandakphu is organised by Indiahikes which specialises in Himalayan trails. A few days into signing up for the trek, much to my pleasant surprise, I begin receiving emails about environmentally conscious travel in the mountains and tips for what constitutes responsible hiking behaviour.

An uphill task

In 2013 with a view to address the problem of environmental degradation in the Himalayas and reduce trekkers’ carbon footprint on the slopes, Indiahikes launched Green Trails. The programme which is evolving to include wide-ranging aspects of environmentally sustainable travel, currently focuses on reducing non-biodegradable waste, composting of organic waste and implementing better methods of end to end waste management by working inclusively with trekkers, staff, local communities and the local government.

Speaking to Lakshmi Selvakumaran who heads the Green Trails initiative, I learn of the sheer magnitude of the garbage problem in the Himalayas. The waste management infrastructure of the city is non-existent there which means the waste created upslope has no exit. In order to be properly managed, it must be brought down to the nearest big town, but in the absence of networks to collect and handle garbage at high altitudes, the operational costs can be prohibitively steep. In most cases, even if waste is collected in the higher reaches, it ends up being scattered along the mountainsides or burnt in open dustbins. I see evidence of this in habitations along the trail and bordering water bodies: packaged food, plastic bottles, batteries, tubes of face wash, and other mixed waste - all brought in by tourists and trekkers - lying in smouldering piles emitting thick curls of acrid black smoke into the air.

The scale of the problem is monumental, given that although the disposable culture is well established in the lifestyle of the local population, awareness of waste segregation is a long way off.

Rays of hope

The Sandakphu trail begins in the village of Jaubhari, set on a misty slope amid terraced fields with a view of coniferous forests as far as the eye can see. Jaubhari is unique in that it has become a model eco-village from where practices will be adapted to other campsites along the trail. Jaubhari was once a village that had no infrastructure to collect, segregate, and manage its waste. Mixed waste made a 7-hour journey to be dumped in the nearest landfill in Siliguri and it cost as much as Rs. 15,000 to transport a truckload of waste downhill.

Today with the collective efforts of the Indiahikes staff, interns, the local community and the Forest Department, Jaubhari is the first basecamp to have a system of collecting, segregating and managing of waste in a decentralised manner. Food waste is composted in a pit on site and dry waste is collected by a network of local kabadiwallahs assembled by Lakshmi who buy recyclable waste from the villages and divert much of it away from the landfill.

 

"The waste management infrastructure of the city is non-existent in the mountains which means the waste created there has no exit."

A poster at Jaubhari on segregating dry waste (left) and the segregation bins. Image: Author

A poster at Jaubhari on segregating dry waste (left) and the segregation bins. Image: Author

In the works is a waste segregation unit installed with support from the Forest Department and WWF. The unit is designed to receive waste from Jaubhari and the surrounding villages and manage the first level of segregation before the waste is transported to Siliguri.

“To make the programme sustainable, we conducted cleanup drives with local children, organised awareness campaigns on waste segregation in the community, placed labelled dustbins for dry and wet waste and worked with locals to practise using the bins,” Lakshmi informs.

With the initial success realised at Jaubhari, it became possible to demonstrate a similar model of waste management in all villages along the trail. Teahouses accommodating trekkers overnight were asked to provide separate bins and dig compost pits for food waste.

Green the trail

Indiahikes’ trekkers stand out on the trail; the neon green bags they carry strapped around their waists give them away. Eco Bags are distributed at the start of the trek and are carried by everyone in the group - trekkers, guides and trek leaders alike. They are used to collect and stash away all the waste generated and collected along the trail. Our path is strewn with discarded candy wrappers, their shiny corners sticking out from the forest floor, some several months old, their bright colours fading. Packets of instant noodles and cigarettes, match boxes, an old sock, glass bottles, often smashed into tiny shards, plastic bags sodden with dew and rainwater - some recyclable, others destined for the landfill - all find their way into my Eco Bag. Similarly, trekkers are encouraged to store all the dry waste they generate on the trek in their Eco Bags and take it to the day’s campsite where it is gathered and transported back to the basecamp where it is segregated and sold to the kabadiwallahs.

Trash collected along the trail. Image credit: Anuradha GR

Trash collected along the trail. Image credit: Anuradha GR

The conundrum in the hills

You will agree that our growing disconnect with nature is one of the leading causes for the sad state of the environment today. Learning to value nature in the cities or travelling outdoors to be closer to the wilderness is a way of reaffirming to ourselves our close bond with nature, and more and more of us are taking the time to enjoy the countryside.

But a proliferation of commercial trekking organisations catering to the growing demand among urbanites for outdoor adventures, unchecked, year-round tourist traffic in the mountains, and blatant disregard for nature and the rudimentary civic infrastructure in the higher reaches combine to have a disastrous impact on the hills.

While managing one’s waste and water usage responsibly is every citizen’s duty, it becomes imperative in the mountains where nature’s cycle is more closely visible than in the city and where everyone’s actions have immediate, direct and unforgiving results.

“Trekking in nature is a minimalistic activity and we hope that people replicate the behaviour learnt on the slopes in their homes and cities,” says Lakshmi.

Efforts are on to replicate the success realised at Jaubhari all along the Sandakphu trail and make the model a self-sustaining one in the absence of attractive monetary incentives, and Lakshmi is quick to acknowledge the huge challenge ahead.

I learnt from my trek that the Green Trails programme is not meant to clean the hills or rid them of trash for that would be over-ambitious and futile as a standalone endeavour. What the programme does successfully is make individuals aware of the trash they’re generating and collecting along the way. It makes you think twice about the consumption choices you make as a trekker, holds you accountable for the waste you create and brings you face-to-face with your impacts on the environment. So, even if you didn’t bend to pick up a single piece of trash on the trek, the next time you want to throw away a wrapper or snack packet, you’ll find yourself reaching out for that Eco Bag.

Be a responsible trekker

While outdoors, respect the pristine conditions of the mountains and the delicate water and drainage infrastructure and generate as little trash as possible.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare and pack for your next trek:

  • Carry your own cutlery, plates and cups to avoid using disposables on the trail. Although teahouses and shops dot the trail, the mechanisms for collecting and managing trash are non-existent.
  • Choose your snacks wisely: Avoid carrying packaged snacks or food in Ziploc bags. Carry them instead in reusable boxes.
  • Pack cloth bags instead of plastic ones for laundry, spare shoes etc.
  • While most trekking companies offer trekkers the option of offloading their backpacks, mules and porters represent an added ecological cost. Offload your pack only if absolutely necessary.
  • Carry your own reusable water bottles instead of buying mineral water on the trail.
  • The trail is dotted with stores selling snacks and noodles which are tempting to weary hikers. However, these items are the chief culprit in the hills as evidenced by the contents of our Eco Bags. Ask instead for a freshly prepared meal, a bowl of soup or a stick of local cheese to see you back to camp.
  • Carry used sanitary napkins back home since there is no safe way of disposing of them in the mountains. Alternatively, use reusable menstrual hygiene products.
  • Avoid using wet wipes which are not recyclable. This bit is hard when you’ve not bathed for a week but wet wipes can clog toilets and render them unusable faster than you can imagine. Use a wet towel instead and dry it by fastening it to your backpack.
  • Stores and teahouses along the way have dustbins but the waste they collect is either thrown on the mountain slopes or burnt. It is advised to take all your waste back home with you or to the nearest city where it can be properly managed.
  • Be aware of the lifecycle of the products you bring on a trek: Avoid single-use items such as sachets of personal care products.
  • Choose chemical-free toiletries. Sourcing fresh water can be particularly difficult in the mountains and in the absence of good sewerage systems, wastewater entering water bodies is reused for drinking or washing. Alternatively, it flows into fields which are otherwise organically cultivated.
  • Do not throw any waste, however small, in the open. Plastic waste ingested by small animals quickly travels up the food chain. Our food waste may be foreign or fatal to local birds and fauna.
  • Leave no trace of your presence in the mountains: Always bring down whatever waste you generate on the trek.

Images © Nikhil Rajkumar Jain. Nikhil is a Software Engineer who loves high altitude trekking, photography, endurance cycling and reading.

Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founding Editor of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.