Cleaning Up “The World’s Highest Junkyard”

Trash and human poop are making Everest a dump, but these new projects aim to de-muck the mountain.

Photo by shrimpo1967 via Wikimedia Commons

A lot has changed since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first scaled the freezing peaks of Mount Everest in 1953. For one thing, attempting to summit Everest, though still perilous, has become a sort of rite of passage for X-treme yuppie adventurer types. More than 4,000 people have now climbed the mountain. As a result of this growing tourist popularity, Everest has also become covered in garbage and human poop (the most dangerous of all the poops). As GOOD’s Tasbeeh Herwees put it earlier this month, “For every moneyed thrill-seeker who thinks climbing Mount Everest is a novel post-college adventure, there is a mound of human waste sitting on top of the mountain to account for their privilege.” And fecal matter is just the tip of the shit pile; the Himalayan mountain is covered with the strewn trash of expeditions past, including, according to the Daily Mail India, “tents, sleeping bags, oxygen cylinders, and even the corpses of climbers who never made it down.” Now, two new cleanup efforts are underway—one an Indian army mountaineering team that aims to clean up litter, and the other a pioneering project to turn tourist dung into a source of energy.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail India reported that a 30-person team, sponsored by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, would set out for Everest’s summit, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Indian mission to conquer the world’s highest peak. The group will take 30 days to tackle the mountain, and are tasked with bringing 4,000 kilograms (about 8,800 pounds) of garbage back down with them. “The team has been training hard for over a year for this mission,” an army source told the Daily Mail. “They have scaled other peaks in India as part of the training. On each mission, no non-biodegradable waste was left behind. This is the new standard operating procedure to scale the peaks and yet protect the environment.”

Major Ranveer Singh Jamwal, an experienced climber who has already scaled Everest twice, will lead the expedition. “Sadly, Mount Everest is now also called the world’s highest junkyard,” Major Jamwal told the Mail. “Our aim is to carry forward our prime minister’s dream of cleanliness everywhere, including at the top of the world…Apart from our own haversacks weighing 10 kg each, we intend to bring in another 10 kg each on the trip.”

A Nepalese Sherpa collects garbage on Mount Everest. Photo by Abd allah Foteih via Flickr

But while the problem of Everest’s trash accumulation is now somewhat well known, having been the subject of several awareness campaigns, cleanup efforts, and regulatory schemes over the years, the issue of human waste still has everybody scratching their heads and holding their noses. It’s estimated that more than 26,000 pounds of excrement are left on the mountain every year. Currently, local Sherpas try to manage the problem by carrying down as much feces as possible in bags and barrels, which are then buried. But this solution is both environmentally unsound in the long term and offensive to those locals that consider the mountain a holy site.

Think Progress has the story of Garry Porter, a former Boeing engineer who has been working to build an anaerobic digester, essentially a container full of water and microorganisms that can process the poop into a source of energy, at the foot of the mountain. In the digester, a series of different bacteria break down the waste in stages, resulting in biogas fuel and byproducts that can be used as fertilizer. Though Porter first started his project more than a decade ago, a number of problems, including how to keep temperatures in the digester warm in the region’s frigid climate, have prevented it from becoming a reality. But now, with the addition of a shelter to keep the digester from the elements and a solar-powered heating element to maintain the correct temperature, Porter and his team think they’ve finally figured it out. They hope to begin construction next year, and be digesting human waste by 2017. And though funding may be tricky, Think Progress points out an appropriate solution:

One thing that’s clear is who should pay for cleaning it up: the climbers. Though Porter estimates the digester could be costly—anywhere up to $100,000, he said—an extra charge within the now-$25,000 climbing fee is a small price to pay for getting to scale the highest mountain in the world.

“It’s climbers’ poop, so guess who’s going to pay to keep this thing going,” he said. “You! It’s your poop.”

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

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