As Indians take to the Himalayas, volunteers try to keep foothills clean

Volunteers from Healing Himalayas.
Volunteers from Healing Himalayas.

The Himalayas has a trash problem. From the peaks of Everest down to the foothills, the mountain range separating the Tibetan plateau from the Indian subcontinent is littered with garbage left behind by careless visitors. On the Indian side, a group of volunteers is trying to change this mentality by organizing clean-up treks.

The Healing Himalayas organisation was founded in 2016 by Pradeep Sangwan, a former city dweller who moved to the mountainous region of Himachal Pradesh in 2009 after developing a passion for trekking.

“Bollywood movies filmed scenes in the Himalayas, which drew a lot of people”

I was supposed to go into the army, but I failed the interview. I was kind of lost after that, and trekking felt so good – whenever I went for a trek, it seemed it helped with any problem I had in my life. When I moved to Himachal Pradesh, I became a guide for a trekking adventure company. But soon I was looking for a way to give back to the Himalayas, to which I felt I owed so much. That’s when I started doing the clean-ups – by myself, at first.

Back in 2008 or 2009, there was a bit of a revolution in India: people started traveling more and discovering the joys of trekking. Bollywood movies like “3 Idiots” filmed scenes in the Himalayas, and this drew a lot of people – suddenly, certain scenic spots saw a massive increase in visitors. Everyone wanted to go there and post photos to their Facebook and Instagram pages. These remote areas with no toilets or trash cans got littered with water bottles, soda cans, biscuit packets, etc. Because trekking is such a new pastime in India, a lot of trekkers don’t even know how to pitch a tent, much less dispose of waste properly. About 20 percent of trekkers are foreigners, but they are usually much better-versed in how to deal with waste because they come from countries with a much longer history of trekking.

“In just two days, we can collect about 8,000 plastic bottles”

Along with friends and volunteers – some are locals, some city-dwellers who visit on the weekends – we got out on treks every week in groups of about 20 to 25 people. We work from an altitude of 2,500 metres to 5,100 metres; some of our easiest treks are just three or four kilometres, while the longest are 70 kilometres. For example, in just two days, we can collect about 8,000 plastic bottles. Last year we calculated that we had collected about 400,000 kilos of trash since our first outing; by now it’s probably about 500,000.

Say we go on a 15 kilometre trek: it ends up being more like 30 kilometres, because when you’re cleaning, you have to go up and down the side of hills to gather the trash that’s spread out beyond the trails due to the winds or rains. There’s some trash that is really hard to reach – like those orange or yellow throwaway raincoats, which are very light and can tumble very far away. They’re so bright that they really disturb the scenery! We encourage trekkers and pilgrims (there are many temples up the mountains) to buy regular raincoats that they’ll take back home, as well as reusable water bottles…

We bring the trash we collect back down to the villages, and from there we have to arrange for transportation to a waste plant. There’s only one plant in the whole region, so sometimes, this means driving more than 100 kilometres. At the plant, the plastic is converted into electricity, and whatever else can be recycled is recycled.

“At first, locals were a bit suspicious”

When I first started these treks, some locals were a bit suspicious. They worried that this was just a passing fad and that it wouldn’t last. Or that we would just lecture them, like some other NGOs. But they saw us go out and collect trash weekend after weekend, and many of them joined in. They don’t participate just to take a selfie – many of them are quite religious and want to keep the mountains clean because they are religiously attached to the trails.

Sometimes, people ask us: isn’t it frustrating to pick up trash in an area, only to see it fill with trash again? But what motivates me is that the more people see us do this work, the more it changes their mentality. If we go to such remote places to pick up trash, then they realize they can do it too. The popularity of our Facebook page shows that the message is spreading. And I get more and more messages from Indian vacationers who want to make a difference during their holidays. These days, we have too much demand to join the treks – I have to limit the number of people who can join!