Mountains of rubbish

The Qinghai-Tibet railway has brought an influx of non-biodegradable waste to the Himalayan plateau, posing serious environmental challenges. He Haining and Guo Haiyan report.

Modernisation has left Tibet grappling with a sudden growth in rubbish. Since the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, tourists and businessmen have flocked there, taking with them ever-larger quantities of non-biodegradable waste.

Some Chinese environmentalists argue that the “trash invasion” can no longer be ignored and have called for rubbish that will not decompose naturally to be removed by train.

In mid-February this year, Xiong Yang of Chinese NGO Green River visited Tibet to investigate the issue. He found that, while a network of signs, containers and trucks are in place to deal with rubbish disposal – and the locals know there are landfill sites – the system does not seem to be working. “The trash doesn’t make it to these facilities,” he says. “It is mostly just dumped anywhere.”

At Nyalam, near the border with Nepal, Xiong found piles of garbage buried beneath the snow, particularly near rubbish bins. Hungry yaks had rummaged through the plastic bags and boxes in search of food and birds were scavenging. By the mountain road up to the town of Dram, a river’s banks were layered with trash. A local rubbish-truck driver told Xiong that this is where they unload.

As early as 2001, the head of Green River, Yang Xin – who was working to protect the Tibetan Antelope at the time – found that levels of rubbish along the banks of the Tuo River, a Yangtze tributary, were increasing. The group organised an event called “Only one Yangtze”, where they put up a sign marking the source of the river and invited government officials and local people to pick up trash along its banks in a bid to attract attention to the issue.

“Back then, there wasn’t a great deal of rubbish – just bits scattered here and there,” says Yang. “And about a third of it was biodegradable.” But construction of the railway brought an influx of tens of thousands of workers and, with this, a change of lifestyle. In the past, the local herding communities produced mainly food waste, which would decompose where it was left. But as the quantity of non-biodegradable refuse such as plastic bags and disposable tableware has increased, traditional methods of dealing with rubbish have become inadequate.

In 2003, Green River carried out its first survey of rubbish along the highway. “At that point there weren’t even any bins or landfill sites,” says Yang. The results of that survey were passed to the Tibetan and Qinghai governments. Both offered polite thanks and acknowledgement, promised improvements and expressed hopes that Green River would continue to follow the situation.

In 2007, after the railway had opened, Green River carried out another investigation. This time, the organisation hired a national expert on solid waste, in the hope that a professional report would spur government action.

In the six populated areas examined in the study, plastic pollution and open-air sewage were found to be the worst problems. Shops and restaurants were mostly to blame. This waste does not degrade easily, and is blown onto the grasslands, where it can harm wild animals and livestock. None of the areas had designated landfill sites. In some places, a pit had been dug for dumping garbage, but it was more common for rubbish just to be left anywhere.

Yang says that it was in Green River’s 2007 report that they first proposed using the railway to take non-biodegradable waste to Golmud city in Qinghai, for processing. The train often has empty carriages on the trip out of Tibet and the body suggested these could be used to carry waste.

This time, Green River sent the report to the Tibetan and Qinghai governments, the Ministry of Railways, the Qinghai-Tibetan Railway Company and the State Environmental Protection Administration (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection). Last year, Qinghai’s environmental-protection office sent an official response, detailing landfill and sanitation facilities that had been set up at Haixi, a prefecture in northern Qinghai. These included two landfill sites with a lifespan of 15 years, rubbish bins and collection centres. But there was no mention of Green River’s recommendation to transport rubbish by train.

Yang went in person to speak to the Ministry of Railways, which happily agreed to carry the rubbish. However, staff said they could only be responsible for transportation – they would not collect or process it. And when Yang spoke to the authorities in Golmud, “there wasn’t much of a response”.

Xiong Yang’s trip to Tibet has left him deeply worried. “The Qinghai-Tibetan plateau is the ‘third pole’, and the environment there is very sensitive,” he says. “Untreated rubbish could have worse effect there than on the plains.” But he is encouraged by the number of people paying attention to the issue. In the latest show of concern, well-known entrepreneur Wang Shi and others are making plans to climb Mount Everest, collecting rubbish on the way.

Xiong Yang hopes that public figures such as Wang Shi will attract more attention to the plateau’s garbage problem and has drafted a plan for dealing with waste collected on the climb. “I’m proposing that a few businesses go to help local government build facilities to collect and treat the bulk of the rubbish locally and some harmful refuse such as medical waste and batteries is transported to nearby cities for treatment,” he says.

According to Yang Xin, however, the issue of waste along the railway line is a relatively easy one to solve. High on Green River’s agenda this year is the tougher problem of working out how to help herders living in more remote areas to treat their waste. “We are going to use small-scale landfill sites as far as possible,” says Yang.

He Haining is a reporter and Guo Haiyan an intern at Southern Weekend.

An earlier version of this article was published by Southern Weekend on March 25, 2010. It is adapted and used here with permission.

Homepage image from Life Sciences at Urbana