Sagarmatha Next, Where Innovation meets Art to Tackle Waste Management Challenges!

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Back in 2009/2010, when the international world media came to Mt. Everest during the springtime when many expeditions were going on, the main message that those international media conveyed to the world was that EVERST WAS BECOMING ONE OF THE HIGHEST TRASH DUMP! And sadly it was no lie.

Sagarmatha Next Centre
Sagarmatha Next Centre

Concerned by the negative limelight and the growing waste management issues, Mr. Tommy Gustafsson, Mr. Varun Saraf and their Sherpa friend came up with Sagarmatha Next, a centre that fosters innovative ways of generating a sustainable system for the management of solid waste in the Everest region (Khumbu Valley) of Nepal. 

Few weeks back we got an opportunity to connect with Tommy, visionary and Project Director at Sagarmatha Next, who has been staying in Khumbu working on this dream project for almost 5 years now. 

Read our conversation with him to know more about this innovative social enterprise, that will surely leave a mark in the field of waste management! 

Tommy Gustafsson, Project Director (Left) and Varun Saraf, Project promoter(Right)
Tommy Gustafsson,Project Director (Left) and Varun Saraf, Project promoter (Right)

Can you tell us more about your journey of Sagarmatha Next?

With an increased number of climbers, the problems of waste management were skyrocketing, Everest was becoming a waste dump. Having had a close relationship with this country for decades, I along with one of my Sherpa friends were concerned about this. My Sherpa friend shared that he wanted to organize a cleanup campaign on Everest in 2011 to let people know that efforts are being made to counter the problems and we came up with a project called Saving Everest where we did a major cleanup campaign there and a follow up clean up in 2012. However for me it was never sufficient because the real challenge was not only on the mountain but the whole Khumbu valley and the Sagarmatha National Park. 

So, along with the cleanups we started supporting the local organization named Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) that built waste bins along the trail for waste disposal, the trails no doubt looked cleaner once the bins were placed. Then we came to realise that waste collection is not an issue but it is actually its disposal which is a concern for us considering it was a high-altitude place with no road access and very scarce infrastructure. The only solution SPCC had was to collect the waste and dump it into large pits where it was later incinerated/burned which was not a sustainable solution. After the earthquake in 2015, I happened to be here and met Varun Saraf, who had just started a recycling company called Blue Waste 2 Value and was already into waste management here in Kathmandu. Upon discussion with him we came up with the idea of building a facility center along the main trails where most of the visitors, trekking guides, climbers, and locals passed by and named it Sagarmatha Next. That is how the concept of Sagarmatha Next came about. 

How is it operating as of now?

Actually we are yet to officially open the centre, we are in the final stage of completing the infrastructure. We are planning to open the center by the end of September where we will firstly be showing the artwork of two winners from a competition we held back in 2019 in Taragaon Museum. Also, we have decided that the centre will be a combined visitor information and PR center for supporting the marketing and PR of the Khumbu region as a travel destination along with it offering environmental solutions for waste management. So, currently, I would say we are in the finalizing stage before we officially start our operations. 

Construction Team at Sagarmatha Next
Construction Team at Sagarmatha Next

How many people are currently involved with the center and how many did you start with?

Initially, it was just me, Varun Saraf, and Phinjo Sherpa who is the chairman of the non-profit company. Now, we have a lot of people that have been involved and are still involved in the project in different functions. From the company point of view, we have hired 3-4 people, and we also have a lot of consultants and partners.  Similarly, from a construction viewpoint we have had 40-50 workers building the infrastructure. But we have a small tight organization when it comes to daily running. 

What were and are the main challenges in this journey of establishing this innovative enterprise?

We human species are a very habitual kind of species. So I think breaking the barrier and changing the mindset of the people about how they view the waste has been a challenge since the start and it still is. Similarly, people, not only here but across Nepal are not used to the idea of working collectively. So the general collective issue is another barrier to make the difference that we are visualizing. Likewise getting the attention of all of the locals here to work actively on waste management is tough. This is because not all regions have benefited from tourism equally. So, getting the attention of locals who have a high inflow of tourists is hard.  

artists making art from waste
artists making art from waste

What are your future plans with Sagarmatha Next?

The very immediate plan is to finalize everything and open up the center. Then we will start the process of making people aware about the concept of the center and its motto. We will also bring in the artists and host them here at the centre. Likewise, we also have plans to conduct workshops with the schools up here and encourage the artists to be a part of the workshops. All these plans are a process in itself as we have to learn with our experiences as we proceed ahead. The long-term plan however is to have a sustainable way of handling the solid waste generated in the region.

What changes have you seen in these past 5 years working actively in this project?

First of all, there has been a lot of change in Kathmandu and Nepal since the 80s. Even in the last five years, I have seen a lot of changes in Khumbu, Kathmandu, and overall Nepal. People are growing and developing along with the nation and there are so many things that can be done. I have lived here in Khumbu for the past 5 years, and the number of tourists have skyrocketed except the last year 2020 because of the pandemic. Back in 2015 the number of visitors might have been 35,000 and in 2019 we had a whopping number of around 60,000 visitors. Along with this, the number of hotels, coffee shops, bars and all kinds of services related to tourism have increased exponentially.

Carry Me Back Project
Carry Me Back Project

Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?

I would like to share about our Carry Me Back project which is something all of us are really proud of. The whole idea of the Carry Me Back project is to engage the different stakeholders like locals, businesses and even trekkers, climbers, trekking companies, guides, visitors, and their staff in the waste management process here in Khumbu. In our first pilot test, what we did is we firstly asked each of these stakeholders to have at least one waste bin for waste collection in their house, lodge or restaurants, and coffee shops and also follow waste segregation. Then for the transportation part, that is bringing back the waste to Kathmandu for recycling purposes, we requested the trekkers, visitors and local people to help us.

carry me back
carry me back

The trekkers/climbers and guides are offered to carry a small bag and clip it to their backpacks, containing 1 kgs of waste on their way back and drop it in Lukla at Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC). When we first tested the project we got an overwhelmingly positive response, we had 5500 bags carried down by the people. That’s the whole point of the system that we are visualizing, everybody can make a small effort resulting in a big impact if everyone pitches in. That’s the message that the center will be giving to all the people. We believe that if all the people take even a small part in the cause then it would be much easier to achieve our goals!

Want to know more about this innovative venture & their innovative approaches to waste management? Check out the following links:

Sagarmatha Next: https://www.sagarmathanext.com/

Carry Me Back: https://www.carrymebackbag.com/