I‘m Only One Person, What Impact Could I Possibly Have?”
This is a question that many of our trekkers have as they listen to the their trek leader who passionately talks about our Green Trails program during the pre-trek briefing.
It’s certainly a valid question.
Firstly, you have paid 10,000+ INR to come on a vacation; to experience nature in its purest form, to escape your nagging boss’ emails piling up in your inbox. And quite possibly, to enjoy some of Indiahikes’ signature sweets above 14,000 ft – not to pick up trash! Secondly, even if you do agree to become a mountain trash man for the week, you can’t help but wonder, “What difference will it really make?”
On my recent trek to Hampta Pass, I decided to get to the bottom of this question. I wanted to find out the exact impact one person could really have on an Indiahikes trek.
My plan was simple. I would fill my EcoBag completely all five days of the trek. By the end of the first day I would dump all the collected waste into a sack at the campsite. I would carry the same sack with me each day to ensure I don’t lose track of my precious harvest from the previous days.
At the end of the trek I would weigh the bag and analyze the contents to figure out how much impact I was able to make cleaning the mountains in just five days.
What was in my sack at the end of the trek?
The simple answer – a lot!
To be more precise I had one hat, one pair of pants, three socks, three gloves, half a shoe, two shoe soles, one zipper, 18 plastic bottles, one glass bottle, two tin cans, six wet wipes, one toothbrush, one horseshoe, one sponge, one metal nail, one piece of a foam mattress, two handfuls of aluminum foil, seven cloth bags, one broken lighter, two lids for plastic jars, one plastic container, one toilet paper roll, one cardboard box, two matchboxes, 11 paper cups, 25 tetra packs, and 200 assorted plastic wrappers of chips, biscuits, tobacco products, maggi and more.
All this amounted to five kilos of trash!
Yes, five kilos of trash in five days.
I was astounded by that number! That means that one person can collect one kg of waste per day by doing nothing more than filling their EcoBag completely. No big clean ups needed. Just simply taking the time to stuff your little green bag to the max each day.
For those who are worried about missing out on the trek, I did not have to detract from other trek experiences in any way. I still had plenty of time to talk with trekkers, enjoy the views, and even take a quick power nap every afternoon!
Now let’s imagine that all 13,427 people that trekked with Indiahikes in 2016 made it their personal mission to fill their EcoBag each day of the trek. With our trekkers on slope for an average of 5 days, we could have removed 67,135 kg of trash from the mountains!
While you might be impressed by reading that number (and you should be!), another thought might pop into your head: “So what?”
Sure, trash is an eyesore in the mountains. I don’t think anyone wants to see a pile of Cadbury wrappers in their view when they’re walking through a majestic Himalayan wildflower meadow at 12,000 ft, but what if we just looked the other way?
What if we just left it there?
Often, when we talk about the negative environmental consequences of trash in the mountains, we spit off a list of the time it takes for products to decompose. A plastic bag takes 1 millennium, a glass bottle takes 1 million years, a tin can takes half a century, yada yada yada.
But that answer leaves me unsatisfied, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one.
I want to understand what impact trash has on the mountains during those years before it decomposes.
How does waste really impact mountain ecosystems?
Plastic is the most common source of trash in the mountains. It is also the most harmful. So for the sake of keeping this article short of a novel, we’ll only examine the impact of plastic waste on mountain ecosystems.
Let’s start with the soils and work our way up.
In any land based ecosystem, soil is the foundation of all its life and productivity. Soil is where three elements – earth (dirt), air (oxygen) and water (moisture) come together to create sustainable conditions for life.
Soil also creates the basis of any food chain. It is the small organisms and plants that live and grow in the soil that allow all other life to flourish.
Without healthy soils in the mountains, you wouldn’t see the rainbow colored array of Himalayan wildflowers strewn about, the vast grass meadows spanning as far as the eye can see, or any of the beautiful song birds hopping around looking for tasty snacks.
Plastic destroys soil quality
Plastic causes soil erosion. It gets stuck in the soil, preventing permeability and water absorption. This makes the soil drier. The loose dry soil is easily carried away by harsh mountain winds and storms. The fertile topsoil gets eroded. This reduces the ability of the soil to sustain any vegetative life.
Without any grass, shrubs, flowers, or trees, the soil becomes even more unsteady because there are no roots holding it in its place. This leads to even more erosion, causing the whole cycle to repeat itself.
But it’s not just erosion that we have to worry about.
Plastic is made up entirely of chemicals. Some of which are highly toxic. We’re talking about heavy hitters like lead, mercury, cadmium, and others that would scare the socks off of any sane toxicologist.
Over time, as plastic starts to break down and degrade, these chemicals leach into the soil. When small organisms in the soil like insects and earthworms roam around looking for their afternoon snack, they often ingest these toxins.
You might not care if a few earthworms die (even though they’re critical for soil health!). But I bet you’d care if you came across a dead Monal, the fantastically beautiful state bird of Uttarakhand, on your trek. Through a process called “biomagnification,” that is exactly what can happen when toxins enter the soil at the bottom of the food chain.
Ill-effects of plastic on mountain wildlife
It’s quite simple: earthworms consume toxins, and then Monals consume earthworms. The more earthworms they eat, the more toxins they accumulate in their body, and the more likely are they to face issues like reduced fertility.
Before you know it, Monals are extinct.
In this manner, toxins can move from the tiniest organisms in the environment to the largest, accumulating inside each of their bodies, causing a multitude of biological issues.
As for herbivores, they don’t get off easy either. As previously explained, soil erosion will lead to less vegetation, which means less food for other iconic animals like the Himalayan Blue Sheep. Even though some animals are lucky enough to escape the harmful toxins as they make their way up the food chain they might just get unlucky and consume them directly.
Let’s take birds for example. They are majestic creatures that people spend their entire lifetimes observing, studying and tracking. But let’s face it, they’re not the sharpest tools in the box. They lookout for shiny colors for food that can often be found on insects like Beetles. However, they can’t really tell the difference between the shine of a Beetles back, and the shine of a Pulse wrapper.
Once they consume these unpleasant plastic snacks, their digestive systems can’t break them down properly and they die. In the long run, plastic waste could significantly reduce the populations of mountain birds and mammals.
Birds tend to ingest plastic which eventually kills them. Picture by Ajit Hota
Deteriorating quality of water due to plastic
Now, let’s move from land to water.
Thanks to gravity, whenever it rains, much of the waste scattered on the mountains gets carried along with the water flow into nearby streams. And just as plastics break down in the soils over time, they do the same thing in the mountain waterways that provide water for thousands of local villages throughout the Himalayas.
Chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA), Diethylhexyl Pthalate (DEHP), Styrene, lead, mercury and cadmium get dissolved in the water which cause a nightmare-worthy range of human health issues like breast and prostate cancer, infertility, retarded mental function, birth defects, respiratory problems, immune system suppression, and endocrine disruption.
This water ends up in the houses of the same adorable children you smile and wave at as you pass through villages along the trek.
And remember, much of the drinking water in India originates from these small mountain streams that accumulate into larger rivers as they flow downstream out of the Himalayas. As the water accumulates, so do those pesky chemicals, too. So you might be drinking the glass full of poison yourself!
So the reason we can’t just “look the other way” when we see that pile of Cadbury wrappers in the wildflower meadow is that every time we pick up a piece of plastic waste in the mountains we’re protecting the future of that very same meadow.
We’re preventing the death of the songbirds dancing in the sky above us and we’re helping the smiling local dhaba wallah who sold us a cup of chai stay healthy.
That’s why we can’t just “look the other way.”
Can’t we just burn the waste?
Just beside that pile of Cadbury wrappers you’re likely find a pile of half burnt Maggi packets.
Rather than carrying waste down from mountains many people choose to light their trash aflame.
While that prevents the negative consequences described above, it leads to a whole host of other equally damaging issues. It’s like choosing between being buried alive or burnt. Neither option is all that great.
Unsurprisingly, the same chemicals we find in water and soil when plastic degrades over time are released into the air when they’s burned.
However, that’s not the end of it. Chemical reactions occur when the plastic is burned, transforming some of the already hazardous toxins into super toxins.
One of the toxins produced is called “Dioxin.”
Dioxin is one of the most dangerous chemicals known to mankind! It has been linked to numerous cancers. It has the ability to severely interfere with hormone production, weaken your immune system and cause reproductive issues.
Burning plastic is melting the glaciers
Burning plastic has another very undesirable effect. It is leading to the disappearance of our precious Himalayan glaciers. Let’s think about it. Plastic is an oil based product. When we burn oil what is the number one chemical that is released?
Carbon Dioxide! Correct!
By now, the fact that man made CO2 emissions are the number one source of climate change is just about as obvious as saying 2+2=4. More CO2 in the air leads to more climate change. This is rapidly melting our glaciers and diminishing our water sources.
Black carbon or soot also has a considerable impact. Soot is the black material you see rising with the smoke from a fire. This is also the reason your fingers get black when you touch the bottom of a pan after cooking over a wood fire.
Soot is the result of imperfect combustion – not everything gets completely burned in a fire, some of it remains as microscopic black carbon particles that float into the air. This black carbon is one of the greatest unknown villains in the fight against climate change, and especially against melting glaciers.
The Gaumukh Glacier, one of the few glaciers in the Himalayas being affected by pollution in the Himalayas. Picture by Nitish Waila
Allow me to explain.
White is a highly reflective color that doesn’t absorb much heat. So normally, the white snow of glaciers reflects UV rays, keeping them cool and intact. However, with more and more black carbon rising into the air from open trash (and wood/dung) fires in the Himalayas, a lot of soot is finding its final resting spot on the white glaciers and turning them black.
Unlike white, black is the highest heat absorbing color. So when glaciers turn black, they absorb more UV rays and melt at an increased rate. Once the glaciers begin to melt, the dark rock is exposed underneath. This has a higher rate of heat absorption than the white snow leading to more melting, more exposed rock, and so on, until the glaciers completely disappear.
So, to answer your question: No, we can’t just burn it either.
Which now leaves only one option for trash to leave the mountains, YOU!
“I’m only one person, what impact could I possibly have?”
After all that, lets return to the question plaguing the mind of the weary trekker, exhausted from the bumpy ten hour drive to base camp, listening to the trek leader who has now moved on to discussing the importance of evenly spreading cocopeat over poop in the toilet tent.
Yes, weary trekker, you are just one person.
But with a modest effort, you can remove 1 kg of trash from the mountains each day of your trek; and with every piece of plastic put into your EcoBag, you are saving Himalayan vegetation, wildlife and villagers from having unfortunate ends.
By forcing yourself to pay attention and to not “look the other way” you are preventing countless kilos of trash from being burned, releasing super toxins into the air that local children breathe in while walking to school. You are also protecting the glaciers capping our peaks from turning into puddles.
Always remember, you are far from one person.
You are part of an army of Green Trails trekkers fighting to make our mountains cleaner.
With all our eco-soldiers on board, we can remove 67,135 kilos from the mountains each year, and make the mountains feel like it is 1907 again. A time before plastic was invented!
So, my tired friend, to your question, “what difference will it really make?”
I simply say “A LOT.”