Managing Everest’s waste problem

Typical garbage pit outside of a village, usually out of sight of the main trekking trail. Landfills are particularly problematic in the alpine zone above 4,000m, where decomposition processes are much slower than those at lower, warmer and more humid environments. Photo: ALTON C BYERS

The Problem

The accumulation of solid waste in the world’s high mountain camping sites, base camps, and high camps has been a chronic problem facing alpine ecosystems since mountaineering first became popular in the 1850s. The problem has further intensified with the steady acceleration of trekking and mountaineering tourism in the past four decades.

The issue of garbage at Everest base camp has made headlines in the international press nearly every spring since the early 1970s. Dozens of ‘Everest Clean Up Expeditions’ have been launched since then, some legitimate, others a way for climbers to pick up a few tin cans and spend the rest of the season climbing.

More organised efforts of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) began some 10 years ago. Camp garbage got much international media coverage in May of 2019, along with the now-famous and viral photos of Everest climbers waiting in line below the summit.

Rarely, however, has the issue of waste management in villages within the Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone (SNPBZ) and main trekking routes been part of the international dialogue or concern.

As tourist numbers continued to rise pre-Covid (more than 60,000 in 2019, not counting support staff) unsightly and unhealthy landfills have become a common sight near villages and lodges. A recent study by the Sagarmatha Next project reported that as of the 2017 sampling season, there were 58 active open landfill pits within the SNPBZ (Figure 1).

Our more recent survey in 2019 suggested that this total has now grown to more than 75 landfills. A 2010 study estimated that 4,173kg per day of solid waste is generated during the peak tourist seasons of October-November and April-May, or 473,550kg over the 90 days. This figure has most likely doubled since the study took place a decade ago, when tourist numbers were half what they are today (Figure 5). If so, more than 1,000 tons of solid waste is generated in the park and buffer zone each tourist year, with nearly all of it ending up landfills.

Within the SNPBZ, the growing presence of these landfills poses a serious health and safety concern for humans and livestock alike. In addition of being an eye sore, routine burning of waste, release of toxic chemicals, and contamination of groundwater supplies creates health and environmental problems.

The widespread problem of leaking septic tanks from lodges and landfill seepage have been linked to an increase in the incidence of gastrointestinal diseases among tourists and local people. Landfills, burning and burying their content, have become the new norm for a solid waste ‘management strategy’ in the Khumbu, a region believed to be a sacred beyul, blessed by Guru Rinpoche in the 8thcentury as a refuge for the faithful in times of trouble.

Proper solid waste disposal is a common problem all over Nepal’s high mountain parks and protected areas, including the Makalu-Barun National Park, Kanchenjunga Conservation Area, and Langtang National Park. Trucking or helicoptering garbage out, are neither feasible nor affordable.

Most solid waste deposited in landfills is composed primarily of tin, steel, or aluminum cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles, and other plastic goods (Figure 3). Electronic waste like batteries, computer parts, and old household appliances are increasingly found in landfills, as is medical waste in the vicinity of health clinics.

Local lodge owners and waste management organisations have treated these as ‘burnable garbage’ since around 2010, as other options were either absent or perceived to be too costly. The belief is that once burned, the problem is solved, when in fact the burning catalyses a slew of new health and environmental problems. Additionally, landfills can remain a perpetual source of groundwater contamination for decades, releasing toxic substances particularly during the monsoon.

The current system of waste management within the SNPBZ relies on a ‘command-and-control’ approach that depends on government laws and agencies to enforce rules (cash deposits from mountaineering expeditions to encourage the return of specified amounts of trash from the mountain). Recognising and incorporating the potential strengths of the private sector in waste management practices and solutions, such as the use of recycling technologies, has not been common.

The overall solid waste and its management in Khumbu is socially complex, environmentally challenging, and poorly understood. Current practices are clearly non-sustainable as well, given the park’s status as a World Heritage Site, finite amount of land suitable for landfills, and the sheer volumes of garbage now entering the park each year.

In response, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Arizona State University conducted an interdisciplinary study of the issues involved between July and October, 2019, with the goal of identifying plausible, sustainable solutions to managing the problem of solid waste within the SNPBZ.


Tourism in the Khumbu region began in the early 1960s, with some of the first known records listing 20 visitors in 1964, 3,200 in 1973, and 5,000 per year in 1980. By the end of the 1980s, these number had increased to an average of 8,000 tourist per year, growing steadily throughout the 1990s to approximately 20,000 per year in 1998 despite the Maoist insurgency that started two years before.

During the insurgency (1996-2006) visitor numbers remained relatively stable in Khumbu at about 20,000 per year, when elsewhere in Nepal tourism had declined dramatically during the same time frame. (Figure 4) The comparative stability of tourism in Khumbu was most likely linked to the Sherpa’s lack of interest in a Maoist presence there.

A significant drop in numbers in 2002 most likely reflects the impact of the Royal Palace Massacre the year before, and decreases were also seen after the 11 September 2001 attacks. After the end of the insurgency in 2006, tourist numbers increased steadily to 30,000 per year up to 2015 when it once again declined due to the earthquake.

From 2016 onward, however, the numbers of annual visitors increase dramatically to the 60,000 per year reported for 2019, only to drop to near zero as of this writing (April 2020) as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Collectively, these patterns of tourist numbers demonstrate how vulnerable international visitation to Nepal can be in the face of national and global events.

As shown in Figure 5, the growth of tourism during the 1990s and 2000s coincided with the building of dozens of new lodges throughout the Khumbu. The combination of increased tourism and lodge numbers also accelerated demands for imported food and goods, such as wine, whiskey, and hard liquors (glass bottles), beer and soft drinks (aluminum cans), water and soft drinks (plastic bottles), canned food items (tin or steel containers), and shipping and packaging materials.

This was the primary cause of the rather sudden and new accumulations of tons of solid waste in need of some sort of disposal mechanism. Such a phenomena was something that had never before been experienced by the Sherpa people during 500 years of traditional farming, livestock raising, and trade in the Khumbu, nor in the 70 years of tourism development within the region since the first westerners visited in 1950.

Local Solutions

The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) is a local non-profit established in 1991 as ‘the authorised local organisation responsible for monitoring garbage in the permit required mountains and peaks … that works with local communities to manage garbage in major settlements and along trekking trails’.

The SPCC has been successful in raising awareness and controlling litter along major trails, and within a number of climbing base camps, including the periodic Everest cleanups that receive most global publicity. To date, the SPCC and its partners have installed about 70 waste collection bins throughout the park, banned the import of glass beer bottles, organised yearly Everest and trekking peak base camp clean ups, conducted village compost training workshops, and continually looked for new and innovative solutions to the challenges of managing the waste generated by the tourist trade.

The SPCC also works closely with Sagarmatha Next, a non-profit focused on sustainable tourism within the park and buffer zone. Sagarmatha Next is establishing a new interpretation centre at Syangboche that includes exhibits promoting innovative approaches to solid waste management and re-use, in addition to interactive natural and cultural history displays.

Other planned or on-going programs include the hosting of workshops where artists turn waste into art, forthcoming museum exhibits of solid waste recycling methods, and the establishment of a ‘Carry Me Back’ program where volunteer tourists carry out 1 kg of pre-processed garbage to collection facilities in Lukla.

The Process

In July 2019, two solid waste workshops were facilitated in Namche Bazar and Kathmandu by the University of Colorado/Boulder and Arizona State University. Participants in the Namche meeting included representatives of the local government, national park, buffer zone committee, lodge owners, SPCC, Sagarmatha Next, and private citizens.

Joining the Kathmandu meetings were members of the SPCC, Nepal Tourism Board, Solu Khumbu District representatives, and Sagarmatha Next. Participants in both meetings were clearly aware of the problem of solid waste and its management in Khumbu, as well as of prospective strategies and actions needed to resolve the issue. However, they also expressed a need for specific guidance regarding a realistic, sustainable, and cost-effective plan for the management of solid waste in Khumbu. The University of Colorado and Arizona State University were thus requested to develop a detailed management plan for consideration by the Khumbu management authorities.

Our approach provided the space and means for different stakeholders to participate in solid waste management discussions as guided by a ‘collaborative governance’ framework, a process that utilises and maximises the strengths of different interest groups or stakeholders. In the case of the Everest region, we considered  the three most critical sectors to be (1) local government and public agencies, (2) the private sector, and (3) community-based organisations.

This framework ensured that all three sectors communicated with each other routinely, and in a collaborative manner, in order to achieve more than any one sector could have alone. It also included private tourism entrepreneurs as active and integral parts of solid waste management. Our underlying premise was that adventure tourism, which has driven local economies for the past several decades, has now also created a number of significant social and environmental challenges.

Previous attempts to address solid waste issues in the SNPBZ have been fragmented and isolated, primarily because the command-and-control approach tended to alienate the private sector from the process. Likewise, in the past the private sector had little incentive to contribute to minimising solid waste, for example through the development of income generating opportunities in recycling, tax incentives for reducing the uses of plastic and other disposable materials, and/or through a cash deposit system for aluminum and other valuable containers.

The Plan

Building upon the previous work of the SPCC, Sagarmatha Next and local government departments, we recommended that a three-step process be followed. The first had four components:

  1. source segregation (manual segregation of waste into separate collection bins)
  2. routine collection by the SPCC
  3. establishment of Environmental Stations (waste collection stations designed to replace landfills and waste enclosures)
  4. establishment of Material Recovery Facilities (MRF), or pre-processing stations where plastics can be shredded, aluminum cans compacted, etc.

The second step involved the transport of the pre-processed solid waste to transfer centers at Lukla airport.

The third step, after the entire system within the Namche/Khumjung/Kunde region is functioning, was replication of the system throughout the remainder of the national park and buffer zone. (Figure 7).

Source Segregation

This refers to the pre-collection separation of plastics, glass, aluminum, and other forms of waste into aggregate groups by households, lodges, restaurants, bakeries, and other entities, each stored in separate bins. This practice greatly facilitates the collection process by the SPCC as well as the later pre-processing, packaging, and shipping activities described below.


The collection of solid and organic waste should continue to be supervised by the SPCC. A system of daily waste pickup should be developed based upon the particular material, for example

Monday for plastics, Tuesday for metals, Wednesday for paper, and Thursday for organic wastes. Fridays and Sundays would be used by the SPPC for work at designated Environmental Stations and Material Recovery Facility locations.

Environmental Stations (ES)

These are designed to replace the open pits located throughout the park and buffer zone and are provided specifically for those businesses or households choosing not to participate in an SPCC-directed waste collection and management system. They should be well fenced and roofed to avoid rainwater coming into contact with the recyclables, and also to protect contents from foraging ani­mals.

Material Recovery Facilities (MRF)

These further segregate and pre-process waste materials in forms more suitable for transportation back to Lukla and Kathmandu. In most cases one MRF can serve multiple villages (Namche/Khumjung/Kunde, or Hukung/Dingboche/ Pheriche/Dugla). Like the ES, an MRF is a covered and cement-floored facility that contains adequate storage space for the raw materials, appropriate, repairable waste pre-processing machines that can include shredders (for plastics), compactors (for aluminum and steel cans), and bailers (for plastics, metals, papers), and adequate storage space for all pre-processed waste materials.

Pre-Processed Material Export to Transportation Facilities

A number of options exist for moving raw and pre-processed materials from their points of origin to Kathmandu and/or other recycling facilities. For within the Khumbu (from village to ES and MRFs), they include:

  1. Porter: Until a system of ES and MRFs is established throughout the park and buffer zone, porters may be the most appropriate option for the transport of solid waste to existing pre-processing. Syangboche is recommended as an initial MRF site since it is centrally located for villages both to the west (Thame) as well as the east (Tengboche).
  2. Yak/dzopio:Some remote villages such as Gorak Shep continue to use yaks and dzopkios for the transport of supplies from Namche Bazar back to their lodges. As the yaks usually make the journey to Namche empty, they could be used to transport solid waste to the MRF in Syangboche.

For transportation from the ES and MRFs to Lukla and Kathmandu, options include:

  1. Carry Me Back: During a six week period In October-November, 2019 the SPCC and Sagarmatha Next conducted a pilot test of the Carry Me Back initiative. Tourists and trekking guides carried 1 kg of pre-processed waste from Namche Bazar back to Lukla on a volunteer basis, where it was then transported back to Kathmandu by the airlines. Approximately 2,400 visitors participated in the pilot program, carrying 5,400 ‘Carry Me Back’ bags to Lukla for an estimate 4.5 tons of solid waste removed from the park.
  2. Plane: Nepali airline companieshave long cooperated with recycling initiatives within the Khumbu by transporting the collected Everest base camp garbage free of cost back to Kathmandu. These relationships should continue to be explored and developed as the sustainable solid waste program gains momentum. However, the recent re-directing of all Kathmandu-based flights to Ramechhap, a 4-5 hour drive to the east of Kathmandu, will require additional transport method (trucks).
  3. Helicopter: Helicopters making longline cargo deliveries (Shree Airlines MI17 Cargo Helis, B3s) often return to Phaplu and/or Takshindu empty once their cargos have been off loaded. The possibility of utilizing the helicopters for pre-processed waste transportation out of the Khumbu should be investigated.
  4. Ropeway: Discussions are currently underway regarding the construction of a ropeway system that could deliver food and other supplies to Namche Bazar in place of the current system of using mules and yaks/dzopkios. A ropeway system could likewise be used to transport pre-processed solid waste out of the Khumbu and back to Lukla for delivery to recycling facilities in Kathmandu.
  5. Road: A new road is currently under constructionthat will terminate in Lukla, in part a response to the growing delays and cancellations of air traffic in recent years due to traffic congestion in Kathmandu. Once completed, the road could provide another means of transporting pre-processed solid waste from the Khumbu to recycling centers in Kathmandu.

Phased Regional Replication

Expansion of the program from Namche to other nodes will depend upon (a) the SPCC’s desire to do so, (b) the cooperation of all stakeholders, and (c) the level of support available from local government, SNPBZ, and other in-country funding entities. A recommended replication process is as follows:

Year 1: Lukla-Namche

Year 2: Namche-Khumjung-Kunde

Year 3: Phakding-Monjo-Tengboche-Deboche-Pangboche

Year 4: Dingboche-Chukung-Pheriche-Lobuche-Gorak Shep

Year 5: Phortse-Dole-Machermo-Gokyo

Year 6: Thamo-Thame-Marlung-Lungdhen

Treatment of Existing and Older Landfills

The approximately 75 open garbage and landfill pits documented by this study do not include the many dozens of older, buried landfills located throughout the park. Since both the active and historic landfills can continue to contaminate freshwater supplies for downstream villages and communities for decades to come, they will ultimately need to be excavated, segregated according to waste type (plastic, aluminum, steel), and integrated into the recycling process established through the steps recommended above. 

The Future

The final sustainable solid waste management plan, in Nepali and English, was formally presented to the SPCC, local government, and other stakeholders in December, 2019. Although management authorities were actively reviewing the plan in January and February of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic closed Khumbu to most forms of tourism by March. The SPCC was forced to reduce its staff to 10% of the previous workforce, delaying further progress on the plan’s review and implementation.

Realistically,the return of international adventure tourism to Khumbu and elsewhere in Nepal will probably not occur until spring of 2022, given the continued surges and uncertainties associated with the virus. However, while the lack of visitors is to be regretted, the time could also be used productively to run a series of pilot projects associated with solid waste and the management plan.

That is, regardless of the pandemic, solid waste management and disposal issues have emerged as major and serious problems in Khumbu, as well as for nearly all other high mountain regions of the world with adventure tourism industries. The good news is that, while the problem of solid waste management has been chronically challenging--think of the lack of any real progress over the past 50 years—solutions do exist, and they are achievable.

For example, collaborative approaches to the development of waste management systems, involving the public, private, and community sectors, are especially promising mechanisms in terms of providing more sustainable alternatives to the conventional practices of landfills, content burning, and burying.

Communication and collaboration with local governments and stakeholders will be an essential part of the process. Approaches and management technologies that are both location-specific, and sensitive to local culture and values, will also have a better chance of success than those imposed in a top-down manner.

Realistic incentives for lodge owners and other business entities need to be developed if there are any expectations of their active involvement. For example, a Rs. 10/- cash value on aluminum cans, plastic and glass bottles would encourage their collection and delivery to pre-processing and recycling facilities, as opposed to being thrown into a landfill.

The active involvement of the tourist, outdoor retail industry, alpine club, and trekking and mountaineering sectors has already been shown to facilitate success, as in the case of the ‘Carry Me Back’ initiative. When most people become aware of a problem that directly impacts them or something they value, they tend to want to become part of the solution. The challenge will be in finding ways to engage the international sector in the sustainable management and development of Nepal’s protected areas.

Finally, progress in the implementation of the current sustainable solid waste management plan, if and when it happens, should be carefully monitored. Success in the Khumbu could very well provide working models for other high-use mountain regions of the world, where solutions to effective solid waste management have remained just as elusive for decades.


The peer reviewed version of this paper by Alton C Byers , Tommy Gustafsson, Milan Shrestha and Netra Chhetri was recently published in Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 4, No. 3, August 2020.

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