2021 Mountain Waste Survey Reveals Staggering Extent of Plastic Pollution Across the World’s Peaks
MRI News
article written by MRI
06.04.22 | 09:04

The 2021 Global Mountain Waste Survey was created with the objective of trying to fill a knowledge gap regarding the types and quantity of waste present in remote mountain areas globally.

Based on 1,753 responses originating from 74 different nationalities (initial results, June 4th 2021), the survey gives mountain dwellers and visitors, who are familiar with the environment, a chance to speak up and share their insights on waste. This publication now features improved analysis with a perspective on waste at the continental level, quotes and photos from respondents, and updated infographics.

  • Plastic is the most commonly seen waste in mountains around the world
  • Waste reaches all mountain ranges and can be found from the bottom all the way to the top
  • Improving individual responsibility is key to reducing waste by requiring the application of the ‘leave no trace’ principle
  • Mountain dwellers and visitors urge for more education around the impacts of litter and more sustainable and reusable alternatives

2 Types of waste

No Unique Solution

Plastics are the most frequently observed type of waste, widely used in liquid or food packaging. Other types of waste, such as organic waste, can be a threat to human health if they contaminate water sources. One example of this is found in mountaineering base camps where, in addition to being unsightly, it is very often accompanied by toilet paper and other sanitary waste.

Electronics and hazardous waste are especially prevalent in the mountains of Asia, Africa, and South America, according to respondents. This type of waste can be associated with general household waste, and its presence in such environments is likely related to larger waste management issues. Open dumpsites and landfills are often less expensive ways to manage waste, but these are exposed to the elements, such as rainwater, that can transport some of it downstream where it then accumulates.

Quantities estimated by survey respondents differ from one continent to another. Within European, North, and South American mountains, waste seems to be present in smaller quantities, but mostly related to individual littering. In contrast, Asian and African mountains have more waste, and its presence seems to be related to lagging waste management systems.

There is a strong agreement amongst respondents that the waste issue in mountain areas can be improved by application of simple principles such as ‘leave no trace’ or ‘take in, take out’. These involve the responsibility of every mountain dweller and visitor to bring back litter and dispose of it in an appropriate manner. Improving education around the consequences of littering is thought to contribute positively to the general issue in mountains, but it is also important to make more sustainable and reusable alternatives available to reduce the amount of waste.

With respect to local situations around the world, there is no unique solution for solving the issue. Reducing the total amount of waste should still be the overall objective, and a combination of these solutions could contribute to improving the situation.

3 Where is the waste


Voices from the Mountaineering Community Who Participated in the Survey

“As time goes by, there’s more waste found on the mountains that I visit, I think it’s a big issue because it stays there and creates a bad environment and affects the flora and fauna of the region.” – Respondent from Quito, Ecuador.

“Tajikistan is a mountainous country and many tourists come here and they leave plastic waste in mountainous areas.” – Respondent from Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

“Waste spoils surrounding nature (landscapes, vegetation, and fauna) that can affect the overall ecosystem of the mountains.” – Respondent from Nairobi, Kenya.

“It’s just inexcusable not to take with you all you bring to the mountains.” – Respondent from Cuenca, Spain.

“There are a lot of so called trekkers that love nature but don’t apply the leave no trace policy. Nowadays, people are loving the outdoor activities, hence, trash is the main issue that needs to be resolved or addressed.”– Respondent from Philippines.

Full Report | Plastics on the Peak: The 2021 Global Mountain Waste Survey

Additional Information

The survey was prepared by Björn Alfthan and Laurent Fouinat from GRID-Arendal, a non-profit environmental communications centre based in Norway, which transforms environmental data into innovative, science-based information products.

The survey was prepared and launched together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS Secretariat), the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI), international mountain sports and guiding federations including the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA), the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), the Union of International Mountain Leader Associations (UIMLA), and the Kilian Jornet Foundation.

2022 was designated as International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development by the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The objective is to increase awareness of the importance of sustainable mountain development and the conservation and sustainable use of mountain ecosystems. This publication supports the observance of the international year.

For further information and press contacts for each of the participating organisations, please contact:

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Cover image: Waste on Mount Elbrus in Russia. Photo by Breffni Bolze.