Green, the colour for loving nature

Decoding eco-friendly trekking and hiking...

Trash bags collected in Balu ka Ghera campsite, Manali

The pink punching bag does more than being at the receiving end of stress at Indiahikes, an organisation that offers trekking programmes. It’s a star attraction in itself. Its guts hold stuffed soft plastics worth kilos, collected along treks over two years. It’s one of the ways the organisation reuses non-biodegradable plastics. Lakshmi Selvakumaran, a PhD holder who wished to work in the field of sustainability, heads the ‘Green Trails’ initiative there. She spells out eco-friendly steps towards clean trails and nature...

Explain the ‘Green Trails’ initiative.

It is our mission to leave the mountains in a better condition than we have found them. And we work with the goal: can we make a trek completely litter-free, to the point that we can say that this trail is as clean as it can be? The longest trek spans 10 days, and the shortest, over two days. And there are 28 hiking trails. As trekking got popular, we saw the trails were polluted with more garbage. We also observed that the disposal of human waste was a problem. We wanted to address them in a sustainable manner and ensure that the treks impact the mountains in a minimum way. Thus began ‘Green Trails’ in 2012.
 

Give us an idea about the quantity of garbage you have to deal with.

We have collected a total of 29,497.2 kg of waste between May 2016 and August 2018. This includes only inorganic waste, like plastics. And we compost more than 20,055 kg of organic waste every year. And, in the waste we bring back, only 1/5th of it is produced by us.

What main initiatives do you have to keep your trails green?

We give trekkers eco-bags to pick up trash. Many say they don’t litter, so why bother with another man’s trash? But when trek leaders collect waste and guides talk about the impact waste has had on the environment, most trekkers feel connected to the cause and use the bags.

Then there’s the problem of human waste. Earlier, people dug small pits to do their business and closed them at the end of the day. But we cannot dig up earth every time as it’s unhygienic. So, we have built toilets by tweaking the existing models, and figured out composting. There are deep pits, a kind of dry toilet, for the entire season of trekking. We ask our trekkers to do their business and cover the waste with a layer of cocopeat or sawdust. It’s rich in carbon and balances out the high amount of nitrogen in the waste. This balance of nutrients helps bacteria to compost the matter in a faster manner. In the Himalayas, there’s a lot of cloth waste, which we upcycle. And soft plastic is cleaned and dried, then shred, and then stuffed into pillow covers. We also use solar panels to charge our lights on the treks. So, we depend on clean energy.

Are there any place-specific eco-friendly measures?

During May-June, in Roopkund, when campsites don’t have much water, we rely on rainwater harvesting. The shed roofs there are aligned with pipes. So, there is less pressure on the water sources, mostly streams. The Sandakphu trek requires trekkers stay in tea houses in villages, not campsites. It’s one of the oldest treks and a tourist place as well, which means there’s a large volume of pre-existing waste.

We have tied up with the divisional forest officer to create a waste-management system. Every month, we go on the trail, get down waste from people, segregate it, and take it to Siliguri for disposal. And the plan to have a segregation unit in Manebhanjyang, West Bengal, is also in place.

So, how do you address the root cause?

It begins with us. We, as an organisation, buy supplies in bulk to reduce consumption of plastic, like sacks of 20 kg of atta instead of 5 kg atta, which comes in plastic bags. And what happens when we no longer exist? Involve local communities. Majority of the waste comes from villages due to the growth of the local economy. Green fellows engage with the locals, conduct workshops at schools and for stay-at-home women on how to manage their own waste. In Bengaluru, our hiking club for schools introduces students to the dos and don’ts of trekking — like carrying reusable water bottles and bringing home-cooked food. We have observed that children take it seriously and are conscious about what they bring on the trek. We collect at least 10 kg worth of (dry) waste on such treks.

How does one become an eco-friendly trekker?

Reduce your own litter:

• For snacks, buy loose chips instead of packaged chips. Buy trail nuts or dry fruits in bulk.

• Try local cuisines at dhabas. The food there creates a good demand for local produce, so there’s less waste generated.

• For women who might have periods, menstrual cups or cloth pads are great alternatives to normal pads.

• Treat water sources respectfully. Maintain at least 100 metres of distance from the water source when attending nature’s call. These water sources are vital for villages.

• Cut down loud noises as these habitats are also home to migratory birds. Avoid bonfires because a lot of trails are in pine forests, which are inflammable.

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