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Trashing The Planet

Trashing The Planet

Except for a tiny percentage of plastics that has been recycled, all plastic ever manufactured is still somewhere on the planet, much of it in the oceans, says Jennifer Scarlott.

Climbing expeditions in the Himalaya have left behind tonnes of trash. Photo: Kapadia Photo Collection.

Ever noticed how good our species is at literally trashing the planet? From the slopes of Mount Everest, to the Pacific Ocean gyre, to the forested groves and riverbanks of India’s tiger reserves, Homo sapiens has a lot of work to do. Cub kids and the legions of Kids for Tigers are ‘old hands’ at the clean-up game.

Beautiful Everest, in Nepal, the world’s highest peak at 8,848 m. (29,029 feet) is called Sagarmatha by the Nepalese and Chomolungma by the Tibetans. Though considered a sacred mountain and a goddess by native people, expeditions to reach Everest’s summit have been made since the 1920s, and have left behind an estimated 50 tonnes of trash and debris.In May 2015, 50 years after the first Indian team successfully scaled Everest, an experienced climbing group from theIndian army trekked up the mountain to recover 4,000 kg. (8,000 pounds) of waste from high-altitude camps.

Before the expedition, Major Ranveer Singh Jamval, the team leader, said, “Sadly, Mount Everest is now called the world’s highest junkyard. There are old oxygen cylinders, tents, tins, packets, equipment, and other mountaineering waste.In addition to our own haversacks weighing 10 kg. each, we intend to bring in another 10 kg. each on the trip.”

The Indian Expedition is one of many that have begun attempts to clean up trash left by generations of climbers. Eco Everest Expedition, an annual effort launched in 2008, is helping with the clean-up of Everest. In 2014, Nepalese tourismauthorities directed all climbers to carry out an extra 18 pounds of garbage, in addition to their own trash and human waste. In the first year alone, the new rule resulted in the removal of nearly eight tonnes of waste. Meanwhile, in the Pacific Ocean, the ‘North Pacific Garbage Patch’ is one of five continent-sized whirlpools or gyres of waste, largely plastic, that is picked up and concentrated by slowly swirling currents. In the gyres, plastic debris outweighs zooplankton, the tiny ocean creatures at the base of the food web, by a factor of 36 to 1. The plastics don’t biodegrade on land or in water, becoming brittle in sunlight and breaking into smaller pieces that still contain toxic substances. Except for a tiny percentage of plastics that has been recycled, all plastic ever manufactured is still somewhere on the planet, much of it in the oceans. Any global clean-up effort must first focus on stopping the flow of plastics into marine environments, by improving recycling, shifting consumers away from single-use plastics, and requiring that industries make products that are sustainable.

All plastic ever manufactured is still somewhere on the planet, much of it in the oceans. Photo: Kate Ter Haar/Flickr/Public Domain.

Meanwhile, every time I open a copy of Cub magazine, I read about another group of Indian schoolkids picking up trash and plastic bottles and bags from wildlife reserves. When my daughter and I visited the Corbett Tiger Reserve several years ago, we watched in horror as a young sambar that was a regular visitor to the tourist buildings in Dhikala, consumed a black plastic bag. Every time kids pick up a plastic bag, or urge elders not to throw them away, they may be saving the life of just such a deer. Perhaps one day our species will become wise enough to return to the old ways of reverence fornature, and Sagarmatha, the oceans, and the sambar will be safe sand clean.

Author: Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, March 2016.


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