Reducing Waste on Earth Day One School at a Time

Schools love Earth Day because it’s a kid-friendly time of year to educate and celebrate Mother Earth while taking stock on how we’re measuring up with our waste footprint. A couple years ago, we took the opportunity to audit 2 schools’ waste on Earth Day week, and the impact of the exercise has huge potential. But it’s up to the schools themselves to learn from the experience and find easy ways to change their collective behavior.

This article walks you through an informal audit that can take as little as 1 hour to conduct, if you have a few hands to help. We’ve also cut a short video to inspire you to do your own waste audit in the classroom with the kids. It’s hilarious, because it involves our trash, and enlightening at the same time.

1) Weigh the trash that the school is planning to throw away. In this case, we had 2 weeks’ worth of one school’s trash. There are approximately 45 students and 6 staff in the school.

A Carload of Trash = 2 Weeks' Worth of One School's Waste.

Total Trash Headed to the Landfill = 23.31 lbs.

2) Start sorting! Can anything be diverted? Start with recyclables. This school recycles, but there’s always room for improvement. We found a lot of recyclable paper and plastic in the trash.

We sorted 2 bags'-worth of recyclables out of the landfill-bound trash.

Total Recyclables Diverted from the Landfill: 9.24 lbs.

3) Are there any organics, meaning compostable materials in the trash? Remove them from the trash, pile them up, and weigh them. This school has a Bokashi composter, but there’s always room for improvement.

Compostables Found in the Trash.

Compostable matter is a resource! Put it back in the earth by composting it or sending it to the worm farm.

Throwing away a dried-up plant and soil? We put the soil and plant in the compost and the 4" pot can be reused.

Total Compostables Diverted from the Landfill: 6.27 lbs.

4) Are there any reusable items in the trash? Separate them out and weigh them. A lot of pencils, some clothing, and bookmarks were recovered from the trash for donation to an organization that needs these items.

These pencils can be reused. Photo © Liesl Clark

Total reusable items: 5.76 lbs.

5) Are there any polyethylene plastic bags in the trash? Separate them out and weigh them. We found 45 totally clean trash bags in the waste.

Mount Polyethylene. Photo © Liesl Clark

Total plastic bags: 1.16 lbs.

6) Are there other specialty recycling items in the trash, like scrap metal, batteries, printer cartridges, and styrofoam peanuts? They don’t need to go in the trash.

Packing Peanuts Can Be Recycled at UPS or Freecycled.

Total speciality recycling items: 0.52 lbs.

7) Are any of the compostable items good for chickens to eat? Separate them from the trash and weigh them.

Chicken Vittles, Courtesy of School Lunch.

Total chicken bucket items: 0.36 lbs.

8) Now re-weigh your trash headed to the landfill.

Final Landfill Tally? 3.76 lbs.

Total Trash Headed to Landfill Post-Sort: 3.76 lbs.

That’s a diversion of 19.55 lbs. or 2 and 3/4 trash bins-full. We pay $4.00 per trash can of waste at our transfer station. This waste audit saved the school (or the school’s volunteer who takes the trash to the landfill) $11.00. In one year, that’s a savings of $286.00. For a small school, that’s a significant savings!

How can we keep our school waste down in the future? Here are some simple recommendations that any school can follow to reduce their landfill waste:


1) If your school doesn’t have a composting program in place, consider starting one or a worm bin. Failing that, a parent volunteer who has a farm or garden will happily take your organic waste away for their own compost. See your organics as a resource!

2) Place a small recycle and compost bin next to every landfill trash bin in your school. This way you give everyone a CHOICE.

3) Clean and wet paper towels can be recycled. Place a recycle bin in the bathrooms for this along with a sign reminding people that the bin is for their clean and wet paper towels. Or better yet, lose the paper towels and switch to cloth ones. This school did.

4) Set up specialty recycling containers where appropriate. For example, a plastic bag recycling spot should go in every classroom and in the lunchroom and kitchen. A school volunteer can come and pick up the plastic bags once a week and take them to the grocery store for recycling. I’ve happily done it for our children’s schools for years.

Do the same for other items such as batteries and printer cartridges. These items should never be put into the landfill. Your community will have a recycling location for them, or look “batteries” or “printer cartridges” up in our Trash Backwards app. Staples takes printer cartridges worldwide and most municipal recycling programs have a safe disposal location for batteries.

5) If your school has a pencil sharpening area, place a can near the sharpener for collecting shredded pencil bits for the compost. Also place a donation can for the small pencils that your teacher might want you to throw away. Children at our libraries in Nepal would love those pencils, or let the students take them home for their homework. The image below, shows a yellow pencil stub my son found in a schoolyard outside one of our Magic Yeti Children’s Libraries in Nepal, lined up with the pencils we sorted out of a school’s waste yesterday:

Yellow pencil found in a schoolyard in Nepal vs. the pencils (and shapeners) discarded in a 2-week period by one US school.

The pencils can go to good use in the hands of kids who have no pencils in Nepal.

These discarded colored pencils will bring joy to children living at 14,000 feet in the rainshadow of the Himalaya. Trash. Backwards.

6) Each classroom could have a reuse bin for students to throw items (like the discarded pencils) that others could take for reuse or donation. Some students might be able to use a plastic container that might otherwise be thrown away, for example.

7) Set up a chicken bucket in the food-eating areas. You’ll likely have a family or 2 that have chickens. Getting the students involved in seeing their food waste as a resource for another animal is a good thing. The families can switch off chicken bucket pickup each week. We use a galvanized bucket decorated by our children for our chickens.

6) Be aware of what’s headed to the landfill monthly and set community goals to reduce even further. If your cleaning service doesn’t empty the trash bags but simply removes a bag no matter how much waste is in it and replaces it with another, you might recommend they pour the trash from all your waste bins into a single bag, to conserve plastic trash bags.

This trash bag only had a single dry paper towel in it.

If they use single-use swiffer dusters, perhaps invest in a reusable micro-fiber swiffer duster.

If your school laminates a lot. Consider going lamination-free. Laminate is a non-recyclable plastic, is costly, and isn’t the most healthy material for children to be handling on a daily basis. Using reusable plastic sleeves might be a more sustainable option.

8) Educate parents and students about food packaging used in school lunches. Plastic snack packaging was the single-most thrown-out item in this school’s landfill waste. Encouraging students and staff to find plastic-free options will make a large dent in your overall waste bill. Students, when made aware that plastic is forever, often prefer plastic-free lunches. A popular option to suggest is a “pack it in, pack it out” policy for school lunches, putting the waste onus on parents and students, not the school. Parents can then see what their kids are truly eating, or not, and modify their portions and lunch choices accordingly, saving money and waste.

Single Most Common Item in Landfill Trash = Snack Wrappers.

Have you found this information useful? Share it with others, especially your school!

The Adventures of Blue Bear


Photo © Liesl Clark

There once was a time, not too long ago, when our children were very small but what some might call brave. They ventured (as they still do) each year to the other side of the planet, to the Himalayas, and those first years were precious because they didn’t know they were doing something special.


Photo © Liesl Clark

They thought everyone travelled to the base of Mount Everest to live the good life.


Their years spent over the winter months with our Sherpa family, Ang Temba and Yangin, in the village of Khunde at 12,600 feet, are among the happiest months of our lives. We had no distractions, committing our time to the children’s well-being up there, enjoying the simple pleasures of family company and the rhythms of Himalayan winter life. The life lessons the village taught us over the years are the reason why we’ve created this blog.

Finn Yakboy

Photo © Liesl Clark

One of those winters, we met Peter Olander, who volunteered to join us in Phortse, a village just a few hours beyond Khunde, where we established our second Magic Yeti Children’s Library in the Solu-Khumbu district of Nepal. Peter’s patience with the quixotic movements of our children on the trail, sometimes like herding cats, and his selfless dedication to the families of Phortse, humbled us deeply. He came to know how important a little bear named “Blue” was to our children’s movement up the trail. Blue Bear strapped himself in with 3-year-old Finn on every journey, whether it be by horse or the back of his Mom, Dad, or a dzopkyo (a cross between a cow and a yak.)


Photo © Liesl Clark

We later learned of Peter’s talents as an artist and storyteller. Please join us in reading his book about Finn and Blue Bear. This tiny blue denim bear was a little boy’s purpose on the world’s highest mountain trails just a few years ago:

Peter caught the essence of the magic of the Khumbu, the mysticism, and a child’s imagination that can be sparked by books and stories about children like Finn and his intrepid bear. Peter is uploading the story page-by-page (it takes time) to his website, and his paintings are original works of beauty that we cherish deeply. Thank you, Peter, for this gift, and for capturing these moments that transcend time to a place and a people graced by the compassion of mountain deities.

Click this image to get to the story:

(Readers, please check back, on Peter’s website, to follow Blue Bear’s story!)


Photo © Peter Athans

Garden Glove Love


Roadside Garden Glove. Photo © Finn Clark

It all started on a bike ride. We kept seeing garden gloves along the side of the road. In fact, we had seen the gloves lying there for weeks and finally decided to pick them up. One by one, over the course of about 2 weeks, we had managed to collect 20 pairs!

I Have Good Garden Glove Karma. Photo © Liesl Clark

We’re an island of avid gardeners, farmers, and a world-famous garden tour called “Bainbridge in Bloom.” Twelve months of gardening weather here on Puget Sound has afforded us 4 seasons of dirt digging. The problem is that the gardeners’ (or perhaps it’s the hired landscapers’) gloves too often end up along the sides of the roads, having fallen from the backs of landscaper’s trucks, farmers’ tractors, or islander’s cars. Being a food-grower myself, I couldn’t just let those gloves rot in the ditches.

Garden Gloves Rain or Shine. Photo © Finn Clark

My children and I have been collecting them: pulling to the side of the road, jumping out of the car, jumping back in, celebrating, for a year now and have 45 pairs plus about 50 singles ready for a mate. Do you have a single garden or work glove awaiting a partner? Don’t throw it out! Send it to us so we can marry it to one we have here because their next life is going to be GOOD.

We have gloves in every color. Photo © Liesl Clark

All pairs of gloves we reunite will go to Kathmandu to protect the hands of the rag pickers there. Life as a rag picker is tough, really tough, and many are children in their pre-teens. These kids, and plenty of adults, make a living picking through other people’s trash to compile enough polyethylene plastic or PET plastic bottles to send to India for recycling. It’s a decent living, but the conditions are among the worst on the planet.  We want to help by giving them the garden gloves we’ve found on our streets and in your garden sheds.

Give Garden Gloves or Help in Other Ways to Improve Conditions for the Rag Pickers of Kathmandu. Photo © Liesl Clark

My children and I made a movie about the rag pickers in Kathmandu. If you have a few minutes, this film short will give you a brief look into the work they do:

Most rag pickers have no gloves at all. They pick bare-handed through broken glass and human excrement to find their quarry, and the best protection they can have, in my humble estimation, is for their hands (of course it doesn’t hurt to have a face mask, too.) We’ve seen some rag pickers with just one glove, as that’s all they have.

Packed to the Gills, Ready for Zero Waste Travel

In August, we’ll be headed to Nepal again, to give gloves to Kathmandu’s rag pickers to aid in protecting them from the unsanitary conditions in which they work daily. Over two hundred rag pickers work at the city’s dump some 50 miles from Kathmandu. But countless children pick plastics from the Bagmati River as well as the streets of Kathmandu, and having a glove or two could save a child from infection, disease, and dysentery which comes with the territory.

Trash Day Curbside Pile in Kathmandu, Flattened by Rush-Hour Traffic

Want to help us protect the rag pickers, those moving Kathmandu’s trash backwards into new goods, to help reduce the mountains of garbage in the foothills of the Himalaya? There are 3 things you can do to help:

1) Use our Trash Backwards app and indicate when you’ve done something good. By clicking the “I Did It” button on any individual solution, you show us that you’ve changed your behavior to help reduce waste. These simple clicks that show what you’ve done to reduce, reuse, and recycle provide us with data to indicate whether a social movement like ours that educates through social media can make a difference. Every “I Did It” click means we can do some good, too. It’s a one-for-one correlation between your action at home/in the office and our action worldwide. For every “I Did It” click in our app, we’ll do our own good: We’ll hand out a pair of gloves to a rag picker, we’ll remove batteries from a water source in a village, we’ll collect plastics from rivers and shorelines, we’ll conduct a village waste audit. Every action you do enables us to do our greater good and ultimately find the support to do even more! So, please visit us at and find some solutions to our global waste that you can undo in your own small scale, then hit the “I Did It” button and we’ll do the same. The more you do, the more we’ll do in return.

2) Send us your odd (or pairs of) garden gloves. We’ll likely have a match and can then get them into the hands of someone in need. Please know that the conditions are deplorable for a rag picker. Gloves could save someone from infection and truly make a difference. Does one glove have a hole in the thumb but the other is fine? Send us the good one!

Garden Glove Love

6027 NE Baker Hill Road

Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

3) Simply help fund our efforts to improve the lives of Kathmandu’s rag pickers and kids in higher villages. You can do so by donating much needed funds to the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation so we can get our duffel bags of gloves (we donate shoes and books too) over to Nepal and remove toxic waste from the highest watersheds in the world while also helping to increase literacy in local villages. As little as $20 can go such a long way in Nepal. We’ve been bringing children’s books by porter, yak, horse, and donkey up to the highest villages in the Himalaya for 7 years now, and have opened 7 children’s libraries called The Magic Yeti Libraries. We bring books up and toxics down. Our target this summer is to remove batteries, CFL light bulbs, and plastics from the rivers, streams, irrigation ditches and water supply of villages between 9,000 and 14,000 feet. We’ll get these toxic materials out of the pristine waters and bring them down to a municipal organization that can dispose of them responsibly. We all live downstream of these waters, but for those who live in the villages nearby, the battery and plastics-laden streams need to be cleaned up as soon as possible.

Garden Glove Love was inspired by England’s Glove Love campaign, a nationwide movement to rescue single gloves and give them a new life on the hands of eager people wanting to help reduce our overall impact on the environment.

Start today with your efforts to reduce your own impact on our planet by doing some good with the stuff you already have in your life. Reduce, reuse, re-gift, repair, and rethink your material assets as you use our Trash Backwards web app and you’ll inevitably help others and our planet, too.

Give Books + Rebuild Libraries = Earthquake Relief

Students at Tsarang's Ani School with books in hand. © Liesl Clark

The girls at Tsarang’s ani school want to thank you deeply for the books you’ve donated to our Magic Yeti Library in their beautiful school. This is a well-loved library and put to use each day. Bringing new boxes to the girls is one of my family’s greatest joys and among the earliest memories for our children, who have collected their own books (and books from friends) and donated them here since they were 18 months-old. The girls at the ani school are such lovely inquisitive students who are in excellent health. Our expedition doctor, Steve Overman, checked them out and found only a few toothaches and common colds. They had many questions for us and couldn’t wait to dive into the new boxes of books.

IMG_7357 © Liesl Clark

Alas, the earthquake that devastated Nepal on April 25th, 2015 took a terrible toll on our Phortse Library in Solukhumbu and devastated the Thame library and school.

Myl Phortse2

Earthquake damage done to the shelves and books in the Phortse Magic Yeti Library.

The Phortse building’s walls collapsed, but luckily no one was inside, as the earthquake occurred mid day on Saturday, when the library was closed (the library is open every day before and after school.) The books had to be rescued from the rubble, stored in the nearby school and our friends’ homes for several months until the walls and roof of the community building could be rebuilt.


Rescue and Recovery of Our Books and Magazines in the Phortse Magic Yeti Library.

Thanks to donations from you, our supporters, friends, and family, and also thanks to a grant from the Simon Family Foundation, the library is now intact and books are back on the shelves!

Phudoma Jenni

Librarian, Phudoma, with The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation’s director, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, in the rebuilt Phortse library.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 8.57.53 AM

Damaged South Wall: Repaired South Wall!

We deeply appreciate your donations of well-loved children’s books and cash donations through the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, enabling the rebuilding of the libraries and the children’s tomes to be read over and over again in Phortse, and our 6 other Magic Yeti Libraries. If you’re interested in helping to bring literacy to our remote village libraries in Mustang and Solukhumbu, please click on the donate button in the lower right hand corner of our Magic Yeti page here.

Checks can go to the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation (ALCF):

Mailing address:

P.O. Box 6666

Bozeman, MT 59771

And if you’d like to do a book drive at your school or work, we’d love to hear from you and help guide you. Since we no longer have a shipper for books from the US to Nepal, they’ll have to be sent, media rate, directly to our friend and agent, Jiban Ghimire, in Nepal:

Shangri-la Nepal

GPO 6802, Panchakanya Chowk

Kapan 03, Kathmandu, Nepal

T+[977 1] 481 0373, 481 0387

F +977 1 481 1317

M +977 985 103 5161

Skype: trekandclimb

Luckily, in the image below, in the second largest village in Upper Mustang that boasts the winter palace of the historic Mustang Kings, the girls and the library were all safe from the rocking of the earthquake.

Magic Yeti Book Delivery Day in Tsarang © Liesl Clark

If you haven’t had a chance to help us out in person, we welcome volunteers joining us on our trips to Nepal for our library projects and we can always use cash contributions to keep the books moving uphill to the rooftop of the world. We’ve seen such improvement in students’ performance when they have a small library of books at their fingertips, books that help answer their questions about the world, or enable them to learn the English language through stories written for their age levels.  Dual language books written in their own language (Nepalese) are extremely popular, too. We set aside a good part of our budget to purchase local Nepali/English books from Room to Read, based in Kathmandu.


Our 18-month-old daughter, Cleo, donating some of her favorite books to the students at the Tsarang ani school. © Liesl Clark

Thank you for your help in bringing literacy, and some of the greatest stories around the world, to the villages of Tsarang, Phortse, Khumjung, Thame, Kagbeni, Chhoser, and Samdzong!


The Backyard Seven Summits Project

Every county has its high points, just like every continent.

View From the Summit of Green Mountain. Summit #2, Kitsap County, WA. © Liesl Clark

View From the Summit of Green Mountain. Summit #2, Kitsap County, WA. © Liesl Clark

Why limit ourselves to the boundaries of our continents, rather than redefining challenges that include the uncelebrated wilds in our own back yards?

Endless Vanishing Points on Our 7 Summits Push © Liesl Clark

Endless Vanishing Points on Our 7 Summits Push © Liesl Clark

This weekend, our 10-year-old started a 7 summits quest of her own – to reach the 7 highest points in her county. We started with #2, just to see how it felt. After two-and-a-half hours, and a little over 5 miles of hiking, she thanked us for dragging her out to a place none of us had ever been. It was only a 1,639 ft. ascent, but it afforded us some together time, away from the ever-invasive media in our lives and rewarded us with beautiful views, even on a cloudy Northwest fall day.

Here’s what our daughter reports about the adventure:

Kitsap County, Green Mountain, 1,639 feet

I loved it! And I think every kid should do a 7 summits quest of their own. I challenge all kids to seek out, map out, explore, and climb to the 7 summits of their counties, no matter where they live. If you happen to live in a county with really high peaks, pace yourself, aim for #7 or seek out the 7 lowest points in your county. The point is to get outside and set goals, explore what’s around you and just get there!

Huckleberries on the Trail © Liesl Clark

Huckleberries on the Trail © Liesl Clark

I found huckleberries on my way down from my first summit, and discovered, on the trail, a really sad story about a little girl who once lived, and then died, right where I was hiking. It made me realize how important it is to learn more about where we live and those who came before us. We should read their stories and find out how they lived and died. I think the highest points in each county could hold these stories. High points have a kind of power. If you go there, you’ll see what I mean.

Here’s a picture of the sign with the story of Little Wing on it.

Little Wing's Story © Cleo Clark-Athans

Little Wing’s Story © Cleo Clark-Athans

Please join us in trying to find your own 7 summits! You’ll get outside, learn something, and get stronger as you go higher. We’d love for you to share your stories with us so they can be read by everyone. Send photos, point to where you are on the map, and tell us how tired you got. There’s always the easy downhill after you reach the top.

© Liesl Clark

© Liesl Clark

Our Backyard Seven Summits Project is in honor of the life of Little Wing, in hopes that no child, no matter what culture they come from, what high place they call home, will ever suffer ridicule for being different. My great grandmother was Shoshone and I know she didn’t live with her native people. I’d like to believe that she was accepted by the community she lived in. No child, or adult, should die alone.

The Last Plastic-Free Place on Earth. Well, Almost.

Riding into the Village of Samdzong, Upper Mustang, Nepal, Photo: Liesl Clark

It was a plastic bag, of all things, that spooked the young Tibetan horse into a bucking frenzy. We had just saddled him up and tied some snacks onto the already-packed saddle bags. Our 9-year-old son, Finn, was his rider. Something about the unfamiliar sound of crinkling plastic set the horse off and 10 seconds later Finn miraculously threw himself from the saddle, landing onto his back. He stood up, immediately, and faced everyone to say, in a shaken voice, “I’m okay.”

Plastic bag caught in a pile of kindling, Tamagaon, Upper Mustang, Photo: Liesl Clark

Ironically, this was the only plastic bag I had accepted from a shop keeper in 10 days and my misjudgement felt like a slap in the face. Plastic bags don’t belong out in the wilds of the Himalayan high steppes — even the 2-year-old gelding knew that.

We were at 13, 300 feet, just outside the royal city of Lo Manthang in the Kingdom of Mustang, Nepal. Finn’s horse galloped away down a rough stretch of canyon, the saddle bags now dangerously tangled between his hind legs. He had ripped himself, twice, from the grips of Tashi Wangyel, his owner, the former horseman of the Raja, or king, of Mustang. Tashi was devastated by the sight of the abrasions across Finn’s back. Finn is like a son to him, a dear friend of his own son, Kunga, who is one of the youngest monks at the nearby monastery. Luckily Tashi had a spare horse Finn could jump on as we had a 5-hour hike ahead of us to the Tibetan borderlands village of Samdzong.

“Dolma,” Reliable Steed, Photo: Liesl Clark

We had 6 days to excavate 6 caves for the remains of a 1600-year-old people who once buried their dead in cliff-side shaft tombs. We also had a waste audit to conduct, researching how a traditional village at the end of the trail handles the influx of modern plastic packaging in many goods that are now available due to the nearby construction of a road from China and Tibet.

The New Way: Traveling by Truck up The Kali Gandaki River. Even 6-Year-Olds are Piled in the Back. Photo: Liesl Clark

The Samdzong people, compared to most villages in Upper Mustang, are relatively untouched by modern amenities often brought in to Mustang to appease the tourists. There’s no shop in Samdzong, indeed few tourists are given permission to visit the forgotten village. We’re helping fund the building of a museum for the ancient artifacts our team of archaeologists and climbers uncovered in the high caves — the attendant grave goods of a Himalayan people we’re only just beginning to flesh out through genetic analysis. The material culture these people had at their fingertips consisted of domestic animals, wood, ceramics, wool, glass beads, and metals like bronze, copper, iron, and other precious metals.

Samdzong Village, Plastic-Free. Photo: Liesl Clark

Little has changed in Samdzong today. The people in this bucolic village work their sheep and yak wool day and night, spinning and weaving to make sweaters, colorful clothing, and even hand-woven woolen boots and shoes that are more prevalent than sneakers.

Samdzong’s Handmade Sustainable Shoes, Discarded in Riverbed. Photo: Liesl Clark

Samdzong Wool Works. Photo: Liesl Clark

For thousands of years, archaeologists have claimed, indigenous cultures discarded their material waste just outside their homes and villages, along slopes outside enclaves where gravity and precipitation would lend their aid in melting ceramics, wood, and textiles back into the Earth. Broken stone tools simply blended back into the landscape that thousands of years later only a trained eye can now identify. These are the clues to the ancients we look for in Upper Mustang, discards flippantly thrown out of cave dwellings or village homes as well as the goods buried with the dead, to accompany them into the next life.

Ancient Bronze Recovered by Finn from Cave Tomb. Photo: Liesl Clark

Fast forward some 1600 years later, and Samdzong’s material culture is still mostly natural: Wood, metals, ceramics, a little glass, and of course textiles. They trade their large flock of goats for food and goods from Southern Nepal and nearby Tibet. A small percentage of what’s carried back to the village is plastic, and the behavior around waste has not changed. All household trash is sent out the door, often into the irrigation ditches only a few feet away so the buoyant plastic can be carried off with the current. The good  news is that the plastics are limited to a few things: Ramen noodle packets and clothes washing powder bags from China. The women wash their clothes in the streams and ditches and set the empty bags free with the moving water. I picked up a large plastic feedsack-worth in about 10 minutes of cleaning-up down river.

Samdzong River Plastic, Photo: Liesl Clark

We carried out with us the feed sack of plastic from the Samdzong river with promises to take with us next year’s village plastic if the locals stockpiled it year round. If all visitors to Upper Mustang carried out with them a large sack-full of a village’s compressed lightweight plastic packaging, including water bottles, and took them to Kathmandu to give to the rag pickers who collect and sell them to India for a reasonable price, Upper Mustang might be freed from its choking plastics.

Choked with Trash: Community Garbage Deposited Alongside a Waterfall Outside the Kagbeni Police Post. Photo: Liesl Clark

“We often discover the settlements or mortuary remains of ancient cultures by first finding their trash: Their ceramics, or broken stone tools, even stone flakes from tool-making that were left behind. This is the common waste of early peoples,” explains Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, leading archaeologist in our scientific inquiry about who the first people were to settle and thrive in Upper Mustang.

Almost completely intact skeletal remains of a 1600 year old man from Samdzong Mortuary Caves, (L to R: Nepali Archaeologist, Mohan Singh Lama; Dr. Bruce Gardner, M.D.; Dr. Tina Warinner, Geneticist) Photo: Liesl Clark

Our research is all about early people’s garbage and grave goods. That we’re also committed to addressing the modern garbage of the local culture seems only fitting. We’ve brought Italian metallurgist, Giovanni Massa, with us to study the many metals we’ve uncovered in Samdzong’s caves. Thousands of years from now, when single-use plastics will be a mistake of the past, what will archaeologists make of our own material culture and plastic waste left behind? It will surely still be here, buried under the silt and dust of timeless winds. I image a plastics specialist will be needed to determine which polymers were used, how they could possibly have gotten here, asking why we invented a material that will never fully break down, slowly dissolving into smaller and smaller bits, disseminating into our waters to be taken up into our food chain, inadvertently consumed by creatures great and small.

Prayer Flags in Mustang’s Relentless Wind. Photo: Liesl Clark

Ancient Himalayan Trade Route Choked With Modern Plastic

By Liesl Clark as part of the series: The Last Plastic-Free Places on Earth

Plastics are ubiquitous along the river, often found in drifts

We spent the better part of the day bumping around in a jeep on a dirt road up the Kali Gandaki River, the world’s deepest gorge, and we’re stunned to have arrived in a village that has wifi. It was just 6 years ago when my husband, Pete Athans, and I trekked up this deep river valley, carrying our children on our backs, ages 3 years and 18 months. We’d follow porters carrying goods, even live chickens trapped in cages, up and down the steep rocky trails. Fast forward to today, and that same trail is now a marginal road, overrun with trucks, jeeps, even buses, transporting locals and Indian pilgrims on their way to sacred Hindu sites at the headwaters of the Kali Gandaki.

Now a rare site, porters along the Kali Gandaki are a thing of the past

This river drainage is one of the precious few routes that cuts through the highest Himalaya, two 8000 meter peaks on either side, providing reasonable and yet sometimes treacherous passage for travelers.

Peaks in the Annapurna Massif, Photo: Liesl Clark

Just a few days before we passed through the narrows of the gorge, a landslide rendered the road impassable and several people lost their lives. Locals shoveled out the rock and debris to provide a track that a truck or bus could traverse, with only inches to spare as buffer between you and a thousand-foot drop down to the river below. The landscape here is ever-changing, but the movement of people through it is not. This trade route is at least 3000 years rich, and we’ve worked the past 6 years with a team of climbers and archaeologists to find the human and material remains of the earliest cultures that migrated and traded here, those who carried their precious goods with them from afar to ultimately settle here and thrive.

Donkeys carrying goods up river as seen out our jeep window, Photo: Liesl Clark

We’re headed back up to the northernmost village on the Kali Gandaki drainage, a forgotten corner of the Himalaya where only a handful of Westerners have been. Our aim is to begin an excavation of a promising series of cave tombs to learn more about the 1600 year old culture we’ve uncovered. They came here and buried their dead in tombs they painstakingly carved out of the earth, which are now caves high on cliff faces. Along with the dead, special belongings were buried, perhaps the most precious among them, many transported here on their backs or acquired through trade from the myriad peoples who traveled through here from distant lands.

Road warrior: Kali Gandaki truck drivers are also master mechanics

Today’s moving and bustling humanity up and down this river corridor similarly carries with it the goods needed to survive the ravages of the climate. But these goods are perhaps more fleeting than those of yore. Few are made to last and most will likely be used and disposed of within the next few months. Welcome to modern convenience, leaving its ever-growing trail of plastic detritus up and down the valley, along the riverbanks, and indeed in the sacred Kali Gandaki waters themselves.

What was once an ancient trade route populated with porters, donkey trains, and backpack-wearing hikers has been transformed, in a matter of 3 years, into a dusty, sometimes desperate highway culture catering to the increasing numbers of people and goods now traveling more rapidly up and down valley. Many of the changes have been positive for the locals: Now most of the villages have electricity and building supplies and household items are much cheaper, medical supplies are more readily available and the standard of living has certainly improved. But most of the goods that move up valley will stay here forever. There are no garbage trucks to remove the plastic from this high dry landscape. Household refuse is either burned, buried, or simply thrown down into the river to be whisked away on the currents. The wind plays a key role, too, in the distribution of lightweight plastics. Scientists on the Kali Gandaki clocked some of the highest sustained wind speeds here on Earth.

Weaving in Kagbeni, Photo: Liesl Clark

Tomorrow we enter the Kingdom of Mustang, the upper reaches of the Kali Gandaki and a restricted zone protected by the government of Nepal and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project aiming to keep the ethnically Tibetan culture intact and the fragile high mountain environment pristine. We sign in at a check post and must show the police our expedition’s list of food and expendables. When we return through the same check post in 2 weeks, we’ll show them our actual trash, proof that we carried out everything we brought in. If the trash doesn’t add up to the items on the food list, we can’t retrieve our $300 trash deposit. Our garbage will then be transported back down valley to be disposed of in Kathmandu. All glass bottles and aluminum will be recycled, and the plastic will be sent to a landfill 10 kilometers from the city where biscuit and ramen noodle packets, as well as plastic bottles are taken out of the fly-laden piles by rag pickers who stockpile them and sell them off to India for recycling there.

Roadside flattened bottles, Photo: Liesl Clark

We expect to find less plastic waste the higher we go, as the population becomes more sparse, and the aim is to find a remote corner devoid of plastic debris blowing in the wind, caught in the trees, and choking the waterways, but the presence of the road and the influx of goods coming down from China might bring surprises.

Dhaulagiri, Photo: Liesl Clark