Soaring to a height of more than 29,000 feet, Mount Everest was once one of the world’s most elusive locations. But in the decades since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to summit the mountain, Everest has transformed into a popular destination for daredevil climbers. Hundreds of people flock to the site every year—often leaving their trash behind.
In early May, a volunteer clean-up team collected three metric tons of garbage from the mountain in just two weeks, lending support to the claim that Everest is becoming the “world’s highest garbage dump.” Among the trash that was hauled from Everest were empty cans, food wrappings, plastic bottles and climbing gear. Now, as the BBC reports, Nepal is trying to tackle the problem by banning single-use plastics in the Everest region.
Due to take effect in January 2020, the ban will apply to bottles and plastics that are less than 30 microns (0.0012 inches) thick. Local shops will be prohibited from selling products that fit these criteria, though plastic water bottles will be an exception to the rule. “We will soon find a solution for that,” Ganesh Ghimire, chief administrative officer of the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu municipality, the region that encompasses Everest, tells CNN’s Sugam Pokharel and Julia Hollingsworth. But for now, the exemption is a logical one.
“People have to drink a huge amount of water up there,” Catherine Heald, a travel specialist at Remote Lands, explains in an interview with Megan Spurrell of Conde Nast Traveller. “To refill water bottles from larger containers would be a challenge. They need more time and infrastructure to be set up to do that.”
Garbage is only one problematic side effect stemming from the influx of visitors to Everest and its surrounding areas. Earlier this year, startling reports emerged of traffic jams on the mountain, trapping climbers in a dangerous, low-oxygen zone. Eleven climbers died during the spring 2019 season. According to Pokharel and Hollingsworth, Nepali tourism officials maintain that “extreme physical weakness, weather adversity, high altitude sickness and accidents” were to blame, rather than overcrowding. But earlier this month, Nepal’s government announced that it would crack down on permit rules in an effort to limit the number of climbers on the mountain.
Now, those who wish to ascend Everest must have previous experience scaling at least one Nepali peak that is more than 6,500 meters (or 21, 325 feet) high. And the fee for climbing Everest has been raised from $11,000 to $35,000.
Cutting back on the number of visitors to Everest may also help reduce the amount of garbage that is having a negative impact on the mountain. Plastics do not quickly biodegrade, but instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. In June, John All, an environmental scientist at Western Washington University, told the Associated Press that he and his colleagues had recently discovered plenty of pollution buried deep in Everest’s snow. What’s more, that snow was disconcertingly dark.
"What that means is there are little pieces of pollution that the snow is forming around, so the snow is actually trapping the pollution and pulling it down," All explained to the AP. Climate change, which has been melting Everest’s ice and snow, is not helping the situation.
“Overall, the past 10 years have seen a lot of changes in the mountains, and they all have been for the negative environmentally in terms of long term survivability of the glaciers,” All said.
At the moment, it isn’t clear how Nepal’s single-use plastic ban will be enforced; officials have yet to decide on penalties for people who break the rules. And as Gordon Janow, director of programs at Alpine Ascents, points out in an interview with Evan Nicole Brown of Atlas Obscura, climbers need to bring plenty of equipment with them when they embark on such a long, arduous hike—much of which they don’t intend to use again. But even if the definition of “single-use” plastics is—at least for now—a bit fuzzy in these circumstances, Janow appreciates the effort to do something about Everest’s pollution problem.
“The idea that there are rules to make the mountain more clean,” he tells Brown, “is probably the most important part.”