Tuesday, August 4, 2020

I Love Spiti

You know times are strange when people prefer bottled “Himalayan” water packaged in the plains and transported to the mountains, instead of drinking the real deal - filtered Himalayan water in Spiti! 

Many people continue to purchase bottled water with unquestioning faith - a perception that it is safer and of higher quality. Advertisements and visuals in popular media have us believe that bottled water originates from the purest springs high up in the mountains! However, this is extremely rare, and often untrue.

Most bottled water comes from sources similar to the municipal water supply which goes through additional filtering. Ultimately, what makes the water special (and expensive) are its branding and packaging!

Each time you drink out of a plastic bottle, you risk the possibility of ingesting the chemicals used to make the bottles. These chemicals can leach into the water over time - especially in old plastic bottles that people reuse and/or those that have been exposed to heat.

What does this mean for a region such as Spiti? Let’s dive in with some shocking facts about bottled water in the ecologically fragile Trans-Himalayas:

  • Tourists leave behind over 3,00,000 plastic bottles each year. These are just conservative estimates!

  • An average tourist consumes 2-3 bottles per day that accumulates in landfills, riverbeds, fields, or everywhere throughout Spiti

  • Bottled water comes into Spiti from the plains. During transportation and also while being displayed, these bottles are exposed to heat constantly. This often causes bottles to leach BPA (Bisphenol A) – a chemical known to cause cancer – into the bottled water.

  • Bottled water has less oxygen than groundwater. We need all the oxygen we can get in the high-altitude regions of Spiti!

  • Plastic bottles take a minimum of 500 years to decompose! We might think we’ve done our bit by discarding bottles in a dustbin, but they typically end up in a dumping ground next to the Spiti River

  • Reusing plastic bottles isn't an alternative either. Single-use bottles leach harmful chemicals into the liquids stores in the bottle. The nearest recycling center is about 500 km away in Punjab

  • If burnt or buried, the bottles release harmful chemicals into the air, groundwater, or soil, ultimately polluting local food or water. These chemicals cause cancer, heart disease, hormonal imbalance, and other serious ailments.

Plastic waste discarded near the Spiti river

Give us a mountain and we’ll climb it!

In 2017, Ecosphere and a group of passionate volunteers banded together to start the #ilovespiti campaign. It was a campaign born out of love for Spiti and collective dismay at the increasing amounts of plastic waste in the Valley.

Through the I Love Spiti campaign, Ecosphere aims to:

  • Educate the community, local businesses, and travelers about the impact of plastic on one’s health and the environment

  • Collect as much recyclable waste off the mountainsides of Spiti to send out of the valley for appropriate recycling 

  • Reduce the use of plastic bottled water by providing drinking water refill points across the valley

Interventions in Spiti

To Inform and Inspire

Confronted by a mammoth task but determined to move forward, we set out to engage key stakeholders for discussions on sustainable solutions to the plastic problem in Spiti.

Local community: We discovered that most locals in Spiti have been reusing plastic water or fizzy drink bottles to store milk, Arak (the local liquor), and water. We met with local women’s groups and Anganwadi workers to educate them on the harmful chemicals that leach from the bottles into the liquids over time. To illustrate the message clearly, we conducted a live demonstration of an empty bottle exposed briefly to the heat of a candle.

Over the years, pregnancy and heart problems, cancer, and other diseases have been on the rise in rural Spiti – exposure to toxic chemicals through plastic could well be a contributing reason. A viable alternative for locals is locally-available stainless steel containers to store liquids. Ecosphere continues to conduct awareness drives with locals. 

Travelers: At the same time, we also actively engaged with the buzzing traveler, backpacker, and biker communities in Spiti. Our volunteers put up posters at various sites to make travelers aware of the impact of plastic and improper garbage disposal. 

The World’s Highest InstaMeet

We took to social media to spread the word and garner more support from across the world. With the help of volunteers, we brought together a passionate group of locals and travelers for the highest InstaMeet in the world at 12000 ft! It was a wonderful and thought-provoking session on Responsible Travel and how to eliminate plastic waste from the Valley. 

Art for a Cause

The I Love Spiti Installation

In 2017, our amazing group of volunteers took their passion for the cause further – with an artistic declaration of enduring love for Spiti in the form of an art installation. While similar to public art installations on Love across the world, the I Love Spiti installation is special since it was made from discarded plastic bottles and led by volunteers. 2018 saw volunteers build more such installations.

When you’re traveling to Spiti next, stop by to view the installation at the Kaza gate on the way to Kee Monastery. Each time tourists pass by or take a picture with the installation we hope it inspires them to make a positive impact and leave Spiti pristine and plastic-free.

Collection drives and recycling 

We initiated collection drives of plastic bottles littered across the valley which were sent down to Manali for recycling. In 2019, we collected over 2000 water bottles with the help of volunteers. 

Watch this video for glimpses on what we were able to do and how you can Make a Difference on your travels to Spiti.

Water Refill points 

In 2019 we set up 5 water refill points at key tourist destinations in Spiti to provide safe, filtered drinking water for people traveling through Spiti.

Ecosphere Water refill points in Spiti:

  • Kaza: Taste of Spiti, Sol Cafe

  • Kee: Kee Monastery

  • Komic: Spiti Organic Kitchen

  • Dhankar: Dhankar Monastery

  • Most family-run homestays across Spiti are also equipped with water filters

Ecosphere provides all our travelers with lifestraw/reusable stainless-steel bottles on our trips, while we continue working towards setting up other water refill points across Spiti. We hope our travelers continue using these bottles for their journeys elsewhere too :)

Turning Trash to Treasure 

Where there’s a will, there’s a way! Apart from the I Love Spiti installation, we were able to get creative and repurpose trash in other Ecosphere projects too.

Did you know that the interiors of Ecosphere’s Taste of Spiti restaurant in Kaza are made from discarded waste? 

The ambient vibes at Sol Café are made possible by our travelers, but some credit for the warmth also goes to an insulated window made from plastic bottles. 

Likewise, we’ve been able to use trash as insulation material in several of our greenhouses across Spiti.

What you can do 

  • Carry a reusable bottle and refill your bottles as much as possible at every hotel/ homestay. This will help save you money and help the environment.

  • Before booking your travel, hotel, homestay, or guesthouse in Spiti, ask in what ways they contribute to environmental conservation in Spiti. The best way to make businesses care is to demand it as their potential customers. 

  • Volunteer with us in Spiti or virtually – to take this project to the next level 😊

  • Carry your non-biodegradable waste back from Spiti and dispose of it in a city which has some form of waste management or recycling

  • Try out the local cuisine, fruit, and snacks instead of pre-packaged goods that come wrapped in plastic. You could also carry compact reusable containers and fill them with snacks of your choice for the duration of your travel 

  • Take a photo with Ecosphere’s I Love Spiti installation and pledge to say NO to plastic bottled water in Spiti

  • Encourage your fellow travelers to do all of the above!

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has’ - Margaret Mead

Increasing amounts of plastic waste is a gargantuan world crisis. The odds may seem stacked against us, but everything we do as individuals counts!

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