“When I look back, I have no doubt that the most important things I have accomplished were neither the ascent of mountains nor my journeys to the ends of the globe. What is really close to my heart is that I have enabled the construction and daily life of schools and clinics for my dear friends in the Himalayas.”
Edmund Hillary, first climber confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest (with Tenzing Norgay).
A short history
The Nepalese ‘Normal Way’
This is the track climbed by E. Hillary and T. Norgay in 1953, following the opening of the mountain, and it is still the most-used route, despite great objective dangers and stifling attendance.
This international opening allows the region to develop and the ascent makes it possible to finance public actions in one of the poorest countries in Asia. Today, tourism is the main source of income in this very steep and difficult-to-reach region.
Of course, this mass tourism produces a lot of waste and that is why many expeditions have formed to clean the roof of the world.
Unfortunately, they usually involve in lowering a little lower a portion of the waste. Some materials are well valued, such as metals or some gas cartridges, but too much plastic ends up in open dumps or, worse, in rivers. The plastic then follows its path, polluting the Nepalese valleys and other adjoining countries, before ending up into the ocean.
There was an incinerator in Namche Bazaar, but it was damaged by the 2015 earthquake and was visibly undersized to handle all the waste.
The Mount Everest region is called Khumbu. It is very remote and has no road access. The porters and the Sherpas must then carry all the equipment on men’s backs.
The largest city in the region is called Namche Bazaar, located at an altitude of 3,500 meters. Most treks reach it from the city of Lukla, which is the last city accessible by plane, at 2,800m. Then, treks often go to Everest Base Camp at 5,300 m located about 30 km away.
For a local population whose main concern is to eat, we imagine that it is difficult to envisage a walk of 50 km through the region to be able to lower its waste and that of the tourists towards civilization.
Tri-haut pour l’Everest..
High-altitude waste-sorting student-trio for Mount Everest
It all started in 2018, at the Grenoble mountain-film festival, in France, when the screening of Jean-Michel Jorda’s film Everest Green gave us, 3 young student-adventurers already aware of the issues of pollution in the mountains, the concrete idea of a project.
This was followed by contacts with the director of the festival, as well as many actors concerned by the high mountains of the Himalayas. The message was clear on both sides: IT IS URGENT TO ACT!
Many expeditions leave to clean the peaks subject to mass tourism. These are great collective actions, during which the waste has often descended into the valley, but Nepal has no way of dealing with it.
Jean-Michel Jorda was won over by our project and put us in touch with trusted local people with an ambitious goal: to install a waste treatment infrastructure in the Everest region.
At two- or three-day walk from Namche Bazaar is Pangboche, surrounded by its high mountains. The last village inhabited year-round before the Everest base camp has been home to a small landfill, near Dudh Koshi, the milk river. As the locals have confirmed, this is a strategic location, because it is the closest village to the base camp, which limits the distance to be made to get the waste down. On the other hand, it is close to other villages, which can make it a collection point.
It is also the village where Henry Sigayret, the mountaineer nicknamed Sherpasig, settled 40 years ago, after leaving his Western life to settle there with his new Sherpa family. It allowed residents to have access to electricity before many other villages further down the valley. Thanks to his work, the inhabitants are very involved in the life of the village and a local association manages the facilities independently. They are also highly motivated to deal with the problem of waste.
After talking to the locals, they referred us to the setting up of an incinerator, which is the solution adapted to this region. Indeed, a local organization aims to treat recyclable waste, but other types of waste have no other way out than landfill or open dumping.
That’s why we trained in this technology and worked with our technical partners for 6 months to design a low-tech installation adapted to the region.
Finally, we have observed too much consumption by the installation, that it couldn’t assume by the local organizations.
For this mission, we will be accompanied by different actors:
- Our engineering institute department of water, energy and the environment, Ense3, with its labs and teachers [https://ense3.grenoble-inp.fr/en]
- Members of the Falchen Kangri project, who set up an incinerator in the Himalayas 20 years ago, with INSA Lyon (thermal study, execution plans and feedback) [https://www.insa-lyon.fr/en/];
- A company specializing in incineration furnaces with which we will carry out an electricity generation project.
After the observation concerning the consumption of an incinerator, 2 questions opened to us:
- How can the heat needed for the plant be provided in this remote area?
- Is it possible to valorize the waste in a different way?
Following these questions, the technology of pyrolysis was evoked. It is a combustion without oxygen which allows to value the plastic material in oil and gas which allows to feed the system.
Pyrolysis has many advantages over incineration:
- low-tech system, easier to implement and maintain
- lower combustion temperatures, reducing the toxicity of the fumes and therefore their treatment
- waste recovery bringing an argument to the operation of the plant for the populations
- smaller share of residues after combustion which can be easily treated as they are not considered as “hazardous waste
Faced with this observation, you will ask us why we did not turn to this process directly?
In reality, this technology is not well known due to the difficulty of setting it up on an industrial scale. It is therefore necessary to adapt the system according to the treated waste, to obtain a satisfactory oil quality. Indeed, we are currently working on a prototype, in order to develop it on a larger scale if the treated waste provides us with oil of satisfactory quality.
The other problem with pyrolysis is the type of waste treated. Indeed, incineration allows to treat all the wastes which cannot be recovered by other means, whereas pyrolysis works only with some plastic wastes. Faced with this problem, we can think of a combination of the two systems if there is still a large quantity of non-recovered waste.
This project is our own initiative, but for its sustainability, it is essential that the local people take over.
The Khumbi Illa Foundation, through Namgyal Scherpa, allows us to get in touch with the two important local organizations:
- SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Comittee), the organization in charge of waste management in the region.
- NMA (Nepal Moutaineering Association), a non-profit association with the main objective of protecting the Nepalese mountain environment.
These two important institutions in Nepal in the management of shipments will be able to redirect the waste generated by them to our facility.
For the logistic and maintenance part, we are accompanied by the president of the region, Laxman Adhakari and the youth club of Pangboche.
Jean-Michel and Henry have also put us in touch with local people sensitive to this problem. This will help to deal with the waste produced in the surrounding villages. The confidence of the inhabitants towards Henri and his family will allow us to benefit from assistance in carrying out the work when we are on site and, above all, to make the installation sustainable.
We insist on the proximity with the Nepalese organizations, not to make the mistake of leading a project with our western vision without taking their opinion into account.
The first phase of the project in the fall of 2021 will therefore serve to conduct essential work to meet with all stakeholders.
It is an international solidarity association of our engineering school. For more than 10 years, they have been carrying out sustainable actions in different countries.
Their experience is an essential asset to ensure the sustainability of the project. We are therefore working with them to ensure the remaining phases of the project, starting in 2022.
The sports and scientific project.
Barunste and Mera Peak
During this adventure, we will also discover the peaks and their glaciers above Pangboche.
The aim is to trek for several days and climb a high altitude peak. It just so happens that there is a summit in the region that suits our needs: the Barunste at 7,129 metres.
Mera Peak, located at 6,476 m, has a measuring station on its glacier. We would like to go there to accompany the CNRS scientists in their measurements.
This summit, in addition to being very accessible for a first experience of the very high altitude, is the site of experimentation of an international program led by the CNRS. Indeed, it is up there that each year, at this time, the Grenoble scientists of the IGE (Institute of Geosciences of the Environment) meet to make measurements on the glacier at more than 6,000 m.
Mass balance, ablation and other bamboo-based measurements … it’s all there. The aim is to see the past and future evolution of these huge water reservoirs, the risks and assets they represent for people, and how their evolution is a testimony of climate change in the world’s highest region.
We will also go to see the pyramid of Lobuche. Built with heavy materials mounted on the backs of men and yaks, it contrasts with the traditional habitat of Nepalese Khumbu. It is actually the base camp for scientists who go to take measurements in the mountains.
And then what?
For us, this project will last several years. Indeed, the images that will be filmed on site and the film by Jean-Michel Jorda will be used as a basis for conferences on our return. These conferences are part of the awareness-raising part, which is a major pillar of the project for us.
On the other hand, our institute houses several associations participating in international solidarity. We are in contact with them and plan to send engineering students every year to keep the momentum.