08 Dec 2017 Story Ecosystems

Greening the ascent

Mountains are the water towers of the world and home to valuable flora and fauna, but they are under pressure from waste and pollution as never before.

Did you know that a banana skin dropped in the Austrian Alps can take one to three years to decompose? A tissue can survive in the mountains for one to five years, a cigarette butt two to seven years, and a plastic bottle up to 5,000 years.

Around 22 per cent of the planet’s land area is mountainous, normally thought of as great wildernesses with pristine beauty. But increasing tourism, agriculture, urban expansion and mining are polluting mountain environments. And decomposition rates in the high mountains are much slower than in low-lying environments.

image

Iceland, for instance, is becoming increasingly popular with tourists – 2 million a year, up from around 200,000 a decade ago, says Jon Geir Petursson from Iceland’s Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources. This poses significant waste management and other challenges.

See a 4-minute video on litter in the Austrian Alps

Mountain regions affect the whole world. Their vitality is essential for downstream food security, as freshwater from mountain regions feeds agriculture. They are also sources of drinking water, and sites of production for renewable energy such as hydropower, solar, wind, and biogas. Mountain litter is a problem because it reduces the intrinsic value of nature, degrades the environment and pollutes landscapes downstream.

However, litter management in mountains is challenging due to their steepness, remoteness, natural hazards, sensitive ecosystems, and the fact that they often straddle national borders. While litter-clearing initiatives are a good start, ultimately, to tackle global waste the entire waste cycle must be addressed.

UN Environment is trying to bring together influential groups, including from the private sector, to do something about the waste dumped on mountains. Last December, the organization launched the Mountain Waste Management Outlook for Mountain Regions Outlook, which presents the sources and solutions for waste in mountain areas, including litter caused by tourism.

UN Environment is also working with the Mountain Protection Commission of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) and others to develop a partnership to raise awareness of the threats posed by rubbish left on mountains.

UIAA has about 6 million members. It’s the hub for all national mountaineering associations, and is eager to strengthen its cooperation with UN Environment in the fight against mountain litter.

In response to UN Environment’s Outlook report, UIAA and the IFMGA signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Kathmandu on 1 December 2017, formalizing their willingness to collaborate.

image

Quick Facts

  • Mountain Tourism Accounts for 15-20 per cent of the global tourism industry
  • Mountains provide 60-80 per cent of the world’s freshwater
  • Mountains are home to 13 per cent of the world’s population, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries; one in three face the threat of food insecurity.
  • “Of the 20 plant species that supply 80 per cent of the world's food, six originated and have been diversified in mountains: maize, potatoes, barley, sorghum, quinoa, tomatoes and apples.” (FAO 2017).
  • Since 1971, the Austrian Alpine Club has been engaged in raising awareness about Alpine littering and promoting sustainable tourism through its "Clean Mountains" campaign.

The theme for International Mountain Day on 11 December 2017 is “Mountains under pressure: climate, hunger, migration”.

Further resources:

UN Environment’s Ecosystem-Based Adaptation Flagship Website:

For further information: Musonda.Mumba[at]unep.org or Matthias.Jurek[at]un.org

Media enquiries: unepnewsdesk[at]unep.org