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Mt. Everest is plagued by garbage. These Nepali women are transforming it into crafts

Sunita Kumari Chaudhary weaves a dinner table mat with ropes once used by climbers in the Himalayas. She and her fellow craftswomen are part of a small start-up project in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, to repurpose Everest trash.
Tanka Dhakal for NPR
Sunita Kumari Chaudhary weaves a dinner table mat with ropes once used by climbers in the Himalayas. She and her fellow craftswomen are part of a small start-up project in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, to repurpose Everest trash.

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Sunita Kumari Chaudhary quietly weaves together lengths of rope, binding them with grass collected from the riverbank in her village of Dang. She skillfully shapes the materials into a jewelry box. As she weaves, she's instructing a small group of women how to work with the materials.

The ropes that Chaudhary and the others are using were once the lifeline for mountain climbers tackling Nepal's mountains and were then tossed. Government initiatives to clean up discarded materials on the mountains have ramped up since 2019. The waste, including the ropes, is now finding new life, transformed by skilled hands like Chaudhary's into items to sell such as boxes and table mats.

"At first, I wasn't aware that these ropes were collected from the mountains," Chaudhary says as she expertly bends and coils a blue-colored rope into an oval-shaped box. To her left, a container holds her tools – scissors and metal nails. Scattered on the floor are several mats she'd made, each a vibrant mix of golden yellow, purple and blue.

"Later, I learned that [the ropes were] collected during a mountain cleaning campaign. And people like me, who are far from the mountains but belong to the indigenous Tharu community, are using our traditional skills to transform this waste into something entirely new."

A craftswoman interweaves discarded climbing rope with Moonj, a traditionally harvested harvested wild grass, to make a decorative item.
/ Tanka Dhakal for NPR
/
Tanka Dhakal for NPR
A craftswoman interweaves discarded climbing rope with Moonj, a traditionally harvested harvested wild grass, to make a decorative item.

The Himalayan mountains are increasingly laden with mounting waste left by mountaineering activities over the years. There is no official data, but Nepal's Department of Tourism estimates that on Mt. Everest alone, there is nearly 140,000 tons of waste.

In 2019, the government launched an initiative led by the Nepal Army to clean up the mountains. Waste collected from the "Safa Himal Aviyan" (Clean Mountain Campaign) is either securely dumped if it's biodegradable or reused/recycled if it's not biodegradable.

Now some of that material is finding its way to Indigenous craftswomen like Chaudhary, thanks to an initiative led by Shilshila Acharya.

A box created by women crafters in Nepal, using ropes collected during the army-led Mountain Cleaning Campaign. Crafters are using this box to store their tools.
/ Tanka Dhakal for NPR
/
Tanka Dhakal for NPR
A box created by women crafters in Nepal, using ropes collected during the army-led Mountain Cleaning Campaign. Crafters are using this box to store their tools.

No waste to the landfill

Acharya owns Avni Center for Sustainability, a waste processing business in Kathmandu, and is an advocate for sustainable waste management. She has been working with the cleaning campaign since 2019, targeting mountains such as Everest, Makalu, Dhaulagiri, Ama Dablam and Annapurna.

"Aluminum waste and other metals go through the recycling process, but we were not able to find a way [to recycle] these ropes and small cooking gas cans," she says.

It occurred to her that the non-recyclable waste could be reused, but it wasn't until she met Maya Rai at an event that a solution emerged.

Rai, who leads Nepal Knotcraft Centre, helped connect Acharya with Sunita Chaudhary and her team of Tharu craftswomen in hopes of turning the mountain waste into economic opportunity.

"While this may seem insignificant compared to waste in the mountains, it's a start," Acharya says.

"We aim to connect local expertise, mountain waste and the local economy," says Acharya, proudly displaying a dinner mat made from ropes left on Mt. Everest by climbers. She says the goal is to ensure that no waste collected from Mt. Everest and other mountains ends up in a landfill again.

Sunita Kumari Chaudhary with fellow crafters in the Nepal Knotcraft Center's workspace in Lalitpur. The women's earnings are based on their output and average out to a bit above Nepal's minimum wage.
/ Tanka Dhakal for NPR
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Tanka Dhakal for NPR
Sunita Kumari Chaudhary with fellow crafters in the Nepal Knotcraft Center's workspace in Lalitpur. The women's earnings are based on their output and average out to a bit above Nepal's minimum wage.

Going through the ropes

There's a lot of waste to sort through. According to Nepal Army's Information officer, the Clean Mountain Campaign has successfully retrieved 108 tons of waste from Mt. Everest and nine other mountains.

"After collecting garbage, including human waste, food remnants, cooking and oxygen gas cylinders, mountaineering gears, ropes and tents, our role begins," Acharya explains as workers diligently sort through the material in her warehouse.

On a cold, sunny day in the mid-December, Tingay Rai is carefully organizing ropes, shoes, gas cans and tent stands at the waste storage site in Tokha, Kathmandu. He comes from the area around base camp of Mt. Everest, says Acharya.

The 49-year-old Rai was a trekking guide for more than 10 years in his village in the Solukhumbu district. He then worked for a period in Malaysia but lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Now I am working here, and it is far better and more satisfying than before," Rai says, even if turning mountain trash into usable materials "is time-consuming work."

Workers separate waste collected from the mountains at the waste storage site in Tokha, Kathmandu.
/ Tanka Dhakal for NPR
/
Tanka Dhakal for NPR
Workers separate waste collected from the mountains at the waste storage site in Tokha, Kathmandu.

"We are not able to supply as much raw material [ropes] because the segregation and cleaning processes are costly and time-consuming," Acharya says.

The project is still small-scale, involving around 15 craftswomen.

Finished crafts are sold at Nepal Knotcraft Center's outlet in Kathmandu and at craft exhibitions. The craftswomen are paid according to how many items they make and sell, earning an average of 400 Nepali Rupees per half-day's work — the equivalent of about $3 and a bit more than Nepal's minimum wage. With flexible hours, the project gives women an opportunity to earn money even as they maintain their household responsibilities.

A lot of work ahead

Eventually, Acharya hopes to expand the program to involve more women and process more waste. But progress has been slow.

"We still have not found a sustainable business plan so that we can make these boxes, mats, key holders in large quantities," Acharya says. "We need investment to mechanize the cleaning and processing of waste in the initial phase so we can provide the crafting team with enough materials to meet their demand."

So far, 55 tons of non-biodegradable waste have come to Acharya's processing center, and they still have around 15 tons at the storage house. "We received glass, plastics, packaging wrappers, ropes, tents, shoes and metals," she says. "For easily recyclable wastes, it will take three to six months to process, but for those wastes that need reuse like butane gas cans, cylinders, ropes, it will take one year or more to process and segregate."

Nepal Knotcraft Centre is helping Acharya's Avni Center for Sustainability to connect with more Indigenous women. "I can train other women in my community on crafting," Chaudhary says, smiling.

For now, Acharya says they are searching for collaborators to make this a model that serves not only the mountain but also the communities. "After all, we are trying to craft a sustainable future." To her, each rope that's turned into a decorative item is a way to help local women earn a living — and to keep their mountain clean.

Tanka Dhakal is an independent journalist based in Kathmandu Nepal. He reports on the environment, climate change, science, health, labor migrations and marginalized communities, including LGBTQIA+.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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