Monday, January 4, 2010

Garbage Disposal in Outdoors – Clean up your act

I normally cover this under Camping and Expedition guidelines but over the years I have realized that it is often a neglected feature in most hiking trips in the mountains, especially those that are supported by commercial agencies. In such groups the members (clients) do not bother at all about what is happening to the garbage that they are producing each day. Since an outside manager or group in-charge who is being paid by them, is present, the clients per se feel that the manager knows his job and is doing what is needed. I would construe this as a negligent behavior and unwillingness to take responsibilities. The impact of your presence in nature upon nature must be your equal responsibility if not more than the service provider since it is you for whom he is doing it. It baffles me to observe that most of the so called commercial support agencies do not abide by the strict norms and guidelines that have now been laid by all local administrative authorities in terms of garbage disposal and eco-conservation. Any guideline or rule if not enforced is meaningless and ultimately it is nature and then us who would suffer in the long run. Some of us think that since we are not going to visit an area again we need not do anything to keep it clean or contribute towards its upkeep. Please remember that nature and her capacity to withstand and regenerate is limited and with such voluminous abuse by humans the scale will tip adversely very soon, if not already imbalanced in many places. Garbage disposal is a very grave issue and one that needs to be addressed and adhered to by all. Our cities are any ways beyond redemption so please join hands in keeping the outdoors and the mountains clean. To simplify the matter and to help you act by giving definite practical action-oriented pointers is the aim of this post. So let’s find out what each one of us can do and must do as an individual and in a group. Please understand that we all are a party to it and you cannot leave it to one designated individual responsible. If you are out there enjoying the natural splendors through any of your senses then it is also your responsibility to ensure that it remains a splendor for others to enjoy as well.

While it is easy to appreciate about littering of trails and hiking paths while you are moving, the focus here is to understand the primary place of garbage generation and its disposal. Humans create waste material and garbage wherever they tarry a little longer than an hour. We spit, we pluck, we scribble, we chew, we gobble, we drop, we smoke, we waste and in all these activities whatever is left unused or consumed becomes a waste; a garbage that we most often tend to leave at the place where we had lingered or rested. This is most prevalent in public places in societies and in nature and outdoors since there we don’t feel responsible enough to clean up our act. The obvious logics being: it’s not my area, it’s not my responsibility, there’s no law that prevents me from doing it, no one is watching me, I can get away with it, since I don’t need it anymore why should I carry it along any further, etc. etc. I am sure even as you are reading this post it has already begun to emerge that how feeble these excuses are but then we all do it or have done it at some point of our lives. So the point is that as humans we all generate garbage wherever we stay the longest and in the outdoors it is particularly our camping sites and night halts and for a climbing expedition it is the Base Camp. First let’s see the kind of garbage we generate and then we will get into the preventive and curative methods of minimizing and sustainable disposal methods.

Very broadly speaking the garbage can be biodegradable and non-biodegradable. While most of you would know the dictionary meaning of these two let’s see it from our point of view. In the outdoors what do we carry with us into the wilderness that may become garbage? Food and food containers constitute the main bulk of potential garbage. Of the other kind of things for an outdoor trip, we carry clothing, shelter (tents, etc), technical equipment, communication sets, kitchen equipment, etc and of these it is evident that you don’t dispose of any and nearly all of them are taken back at the end of our excursion since they are of permanent nature and has a longer shelf life and hence can be recycled and reused.

Food planning is the most complicated and variable part of any outdoor trip. Incidentally it also constitutes the heaviest group load, especially at the beginning of the trip. You only have to get involved into the food planning of even a simple one week long trekking trip to realize how much we human eat in a day and what all is necessary to ensure that you get a good, healthy and palatable meal. My sincere appreciation and admiration for the countless housewives across the globe who feed their families every day all their lives. All the garbage that you generate is either an explicit or implicit outcome of your food and your act of eating. Now let’s break it down to the details and along with each I would also enumerate the best disposal methods.

Food waste: These can be cooked food leftovers that is in excess of the required amount, or leftovers from individual plates like some bit of extra rice, or pickle or something that you didn’t like. No matter how meticulously you plan your menu and bulk requirement for your team strength, food is a variable that cannot be predicted accurately. Invariably all cooks and food managers churn out on the higher side since you can appreciate that food must never be in shortage (this can lead to murderous consequences). Cooks and kitchen staff of any expedition are the most harassed lot and they do the most important and least appreciated task in the group. I should know, since I used to volunteer as cook and helper to get myself accepted in expeditions. The only way of disposing cooked food is to bury in ground. The other alternative is also to recycle them since it is mostly cold in the mountains and the kitchen staffs normally do it, yet there would still be unconsumed food. While your camping tents, etc are being pitched few members must prepare garbage disposal pit at the same time. It should be preferably downstream from your tents and at least a 100 ft away from the kitchen. Since each member might find it tedious to go to the food garbage pit after every meal, what I opt is to keep a vessel near the dining area into which all members can empty their plates post meal and then one person can take the vessel to the main pit and empty it out. After every meal the exposed food in the garbage is to be covered by a layer of mud from the neighboring soil. This pit should ideally be 24 inch in LXBXD (depth). If you are going to camp in a place for more than a night or for expedition base camp the pit need to be widened or else different pits can be dug. At no occasions should the food dumped be left uncovered to prevent any incursion by birds, wild animals, etc. While it may seem that feeding wild animals and birds in the outdoors is a noble act please remember that these wild animals do not need your presence to feed. They have been doing it quite adequately even before you came and by offering them food leftovers you are only making them dependent upon outside influence and robbing them of their natural genetic food gathering instincts. While burying the food in ground you are enriching the soil leading to better vegetation and soil regeneration for the future. Other food wastes are the ones that are generated during food preparation, e.g. potato or vegetable skins, meat fat, fruit peels, skins, egg shells, rice husk, etc. These also go into the food garbage pit.

Paper waste: These are primarily generated out of the food packages like food cartons, wrappers, cardboard boxes, egg trays, any kind of paper bags, etc and also toilet papers, hand tissue papers, etc. All such paper waste is to be dropped in a shallow pit and burnt and then the ashes covered with fresh soil. On no account must any paper waste go into the water bodies. But before you burn all your papers, especially the sturdy cardboard packing boxes make sure that you have recycled them adequately. Packing boxes are a great way to make cushions for you to sit on ground or to lie down under the sun. They can be used to collect soil or to pad loads on your back or pack animals. They can even be used as makeshift head protection if you are crossing a rock-fall area (I don’t think anyone normally carries helmets) or as sun shades. Several times I have even used a thick layer of sturdy cardboard as a sled to glissade down ice covered slopes. So before you burn them off please see if they cannot be recycled any more. This dictum of recycling to its optimal multiple uses apply to all waste products in the outdoors.

Tin, Metal and Glass waste: Food containers like pickle and sauce bottles, oil and rice tins, jam bottles, etc are the main sources. These are to be brought back without any question. For the ease of carrying the empty containers you can squeeze or smash the containers but you must carry them back out from the wilderness. Few people suggest that you can bury them in the ground but I disagree. In most of the road-heads or district headquarters of our trekking areas, local authorities have set up collection points for such garbage from the trekking teams so please hand them over or else give them to trash collectors for recycling. The best (I do this personally) is to bring it back to your city where the chances of these things being recycled are higher through local raddiwallahs (garbage collectors in India).

Plastic, plastic paper, polythene waste: As is evident these are all food containers or can come from gear or clothing wrappings, etc. All plastic and polythene waste is to be brought back without fail. Ideal is to keep a central jute bag where each day’s plastic and polythene paper waste is dumped and collected. On no account must plastic be burnt or buried in ground. Every chocolate or toffee wrapper is to be brought back along with the team. Dispose them in the right places at the road head or at any of the designated local dumping points. I don’t understand the common propensity to drop plastic wrappers, etc on the trail or at camp sites since these weigh almost nothing and is so easy to crumple and put away. And please don’t use plastic papers for trail marking. It is sickening to see chewing gum or chips wrappers littered on a trail like markers. If you do feel that you might lose your track and need to use something to mark your trail then use something like fruit peel or draw arrows or marks on the ground or even tree-leaves or place stones. One technique I often use wherever possible is to tie up a clump of grass or few branches together into a knot to use as markers.

Jute or gunny bags: These can be burnt but I would suggest you use them all through the trip since they have multiple usages. Best is to use them as the first layer inside your tent on ground. They provide excellent insulation from cold and wet condition. They can be used to carry other waste materials or as cushions for porter packs or animals, you can use them to carry mud, soil, ice, etc. Few of them can be stitched together to make a temporary stretcher or as a rain shelter, etc. Use such bags to the fullest and then bring them back along with you.

Before we move on to the last category of waste, let’s first look at what preventive measures we can undertake to reduce the above.

It is obvious that the best preventive measure to reduce the above waste products is to carry as less as possible in the first place. It’s a direct outcome of volume carried in against volume wasted. This has another implicit advantage that it also reduces your overall expedition load. By experience I have seen that nearly 10 - 15% of your expedition load can be cut down if you reduce your packaging materials to barest minimum. First and foremost look for alternative for the heaviest objects like tins, metals, glasses. So in my expeditions you would find jams, butter, pickles and tomato ketchups in plastic pouches. Reduce your glass bottles and metal containers to minimum. Even if such alternative is not available commercially, you can always repack such food items into plastic pouches at home before starting (expedition preparation). Next, dispose off all the packing cosmetics; cornflakes and muesli outer boxes, tea packets, biscuit fancy packing, ready to eat food outer cardboard boxes, etc. This will not only reduce weight but also save on volume and space. To prevent mixing up you must write down the names of the food, etc on the silver or plastic pouch that emerges out of the outer cardboard boxes of most of these items. Needless to say use a permanent marker pen and write legibly. By doing this if you feel that your items being fragile may not withstand the rigors of an expedition or trek in the mountains then the best would be to put all such stuff into a tin (not heavy but sturdy) box that can be carried by a porter thereafter. Also while you are doing this do anticipate the future multiple usage of each container so that you may recycle them to the maximum. For e.g. the plastic packets that get emptied on the first day can be reused to store other stuff or as lunch or trail food packets or for keeping plastic waste, etc. Plastics are great water containers and water proofs. In a heavy shower even if you don’t have anything to cover your body but a plastic to keep your head dry it will be beneficial.

Human waste: This is the only waste that is totally unavoidable and is so least understood and managed. Usually it also features among the most widely asked questions of me; ‘how do you do it?’ The solution is simply a ‘Shit Pit’ and using it as an Indian toilet. Designate an area that is not visible from your accommodation area, behind a rock, etc and dig a deep but narrow pit so that your feet can sit astride the hole. If you can then do carry a toilet tent so that the tent can be erected around the pit. The dug out mud is to be kept nearby and also a bag of lime soda. As an indicator you can use a flag or any marker cloth (kept on a rock or hanging from a tree) to indicate that the toilet is occupied or otherwise. Make it a rule that everyone has to use only the designated shit pit. After each usage drop a fistful of lime soda and mud into the pit to cover your deeds. That’s all. While closing the camp site fill up the ‘shit pit’ with adequate amount of lime soda and then cover it up completely with soil and mud. Spread few dead leaves and grasses and foliages on top. Nature will take care of the rest. If your stay (for an expedition base camp) is longer then you will need to make more number of such pits, following the same methodology. As far as possible use water for cleaning up but if you must use a toilet paper then do not drop the paper into the pit. Put it in a separate bag to be burnt later. Up in cold places this will not lead to any stink etc. This pile must be burnt daily. Indiscrete and rampant shitting all over the camping ground must be avoided at all costs. And for heaven’s sake never ever drop your loads next to or into a water body. While moving, on the trail, etc if you need to answer nature’s call then try to climb a ridge away from the main trail and away from any water source and if you cannot dig even a shallow pit then do dislodge a stone and use the slight depression on ground. Good news is that for the fluid waste you can go anywhere except in and around water bodies. For those on a climb where upper camps will be set up, these days chemically treated ‘poop bags’ are available that can be used for prolonged duration. In Polar Regions, especially in Antarctica and other fragile Arctic regions use of such bags is mandatory.

To summarize the above let’s look at few dos and don’ts about garbage in the outdoors:
1. Minimize the volume and weight of garbage-potential products that you carry
2. Bury all food products, burn all paper products, carry back all tin, metal, plastic, glass etc
3. Use ‘shit pits’ for human solid waste
4. Recycle and reuse the garbage produced during the trip
5. Educate, train and sensitize each member (including support staff) of the team about garbage generation and disposal
6. Make this a community based activity where every member participates, make it fun
7. Make one person overall in-charge and responsible for garbage management. Generally the youngest and most energetic member of the team is ideal (believe me kids are way better than we adults in such matters)
8. The garbage manager (or you can call him/her ‘Camp Commissioner’) is to ensure that strict norms are being followed and implemented and will also carry out stringent checks when campsites are wound up and at the end of the trip
9. You can offer innovative incentives to make it a competitive and fun activity. On my last Everest expedition I had offered a cash award of $ 5.00 per empty oxygen cylinder that anyone brought down.

1. Obviously the opposite of the ‘Do’s’
2. Do not drop or dispose anything in any water bodies like lakes, rivers, waterfalls, etc or inside a crevasse, ice fall
3. Do not overlook any person not following the garbage disposal norms. More you check people and fellow members more it will become a habit. You might face hostility at the beginning but please do it.
4. No garbage should be left in the open or unguarded as winds and rains can carry them around and end up littering a much larger area than your immediate vicinity
5. Don’t rely completely on the kitchen staff to take care of garbage. Check them regularly.

I may or may not have covered all possible kinds of garbage and its effective management but as you can appreciate that this is more of a common sense than any strict guidelines. As I always insist that nature and the outdoors are a place which is akin to heaven and are sacred and must be left as pristine as possible. If you simply follow the rule of ‘shoot only with your camera and leave only your footprints’ then you would be doing the right thing. Just don’t leave anything there and whatever you do please bury them and dispose them off in a manner where the garbage will actually become a natural part of nature and enhance its intrinsic value rather than becoming an obstacle.

In my trips I follow a simple method. Every morning when we have wound up our camp site or our base camp after the completion of an expedition, I assemble my entire team of members and support staff and make them walk through our camp site and the neighboring area and ask them if they would like to come upon such a campsite in future and would they stay in a place like this? Even if one individual answers in the negative then we stay back and clean up the place further till everyone has agreed that yes, it is a place where each would love to camp upon. Even if for a night or for few days, it was and is your home so keep it clean and leave it cleaner for those who are bound to follow in your footsteps.

Happy cleaning… and while you are busy on the trail I will keep the summit clean since I will always see you on the top!


  1. Perfect! Very practical suggestions.

  2. great!thanks for article!i always feel so bad when see that people leave the garbage in the mountains...Please everyone clean up after yourself!

  3. This is a real neat list, Satya. You should get this printed and hand it over to all the adventure companies in India!