Trash. Every day we create it - and every day we toss it out of sight. We hide it in trash bins, dumpsters, landfills, sometimes a closet. Anything to keep it from being visible. But what do we do when it starts encroaching on the public lands we use for outdoor recreation – the places we rely on for escaping the city’s grit and pollution? This account follows an expat who recently moved to Mongolia as he documents his experience with the growing problem of trash in Ulaanbaatar’s protected natural areas. The takeaway is that we can all work harder to limit our waste in these public areas, and principles such as the “pack in, pack out” philosophy of Leave No Trace are a good starting point.
I spent my formative years in University in an Outdoors Club. Almost every weekend my friends and I traveled to the White Mountains National Park to hike and camp. We’d sleep under the stars, build campfires, cook feasts, summit peaks, and escape from the grind of studying for exams. The spirit of enjoying the outdoors, pushing one’s limit outside, and meeting cool people in the process are all things I strongly identify with. So I was pretty excited when I came to Mongolia and heard about the dozens of hiking clubs in UB and the popularity of outdoor recreation. It’s a no-brainer with Mongolia’s beautiful landscape.
I jumped right in to UB’s hiking scene. On my second weekend I went up Tsetsee Gun with a ragtag group that ended up getting pretty lost. From the summit, my friend pointed north to a green valley that stretched for miles and said something to the effect of “I don’t know where the trail is, but we need to go in that direction.” So, off we went. For about two hours we stumbled through the woods without any semblance of a trail. Eventually she proved right – we did stumble upon the trail she thought was there – but we were only able to do so because of a trail of plastic bags and other discarded items that pointed us in the right direction to the main path.
The hike was great. But I was torn over the day’s misadventures. A key part of my college outing club experience was adherence to the Leave No Trace principles for outdoor ethics. On that day we broke several of the principles: we set out without enough knowledge about the trail system and navigation, we walked for kilometers on unmarked trail (trampling plants and damaging habitat in the process), and – while it ended up helping us find our way, for which I am grateful – we were only able to make it out quickly because other people had left so much trash behind for us to follow.
Leave No Trace (LNT) is a code of conduct adopted by outdoor recreationists as a commitment to minimize environmental impact. The principles of LNT span across trail etiquette, safe campfire techniques, and proper wildlife interactions, among others, as shown in Figure 1. While the Leave No Trace organization (a not-for-profit) distinguishes between “back country” (i.e., rural areas) and “front country” (i.e., areas in proximity to an urban center), the spirit of the principles is the same: leave as little trace of your visit as possible so that others can also enjoy pristine nature. These principles are strongly instilled in most outdoor clubs, wildnerness programs, and National and State Park enforcement programs. There is a lot of social pressure to leave a minimal impact on the environment.
Figure 1. Frontcountry Leave No Trace principles for outdoor ethics
There are several signs along the beginning portion of the main Bogd Khan trail to remind visitors that trash is prohibited (see Figure 2). But trash is clearly visible despite the reminders. My friends and I filled up a few plastic bags’ worth of trash just on our way down as we exited the park. Clearly, many people aren’t paying much attention to the signs.
Figure 2. A sign’s poetic reminder to keep nature pure
This led me to believe that the popularity of hiking and outdoor recreation in Mongolia has not gone hand in hand with universal awareness and adoption of principles to minimize environmental impact. Mongolian friends with whom I’ve spoken and my own observations on other trips both near and far from the city have affirmed this sentiment. I think this partly stems from the sheer density of people visiting this area because its proximity to the city center. This, combined with a general attitude of carelessness and perhaps a belief that someone else will pick up one’s trash, have combined to produce an inundation of litter in the protected area south of Ulaanbaatar.
With the help of my friends at the Ger Community Mapping Center, I made a brief survey to ask Mongolians themselves how they identify with LNT principles when they partake in outdoor recreation around UB. I posted this survey on a handful of Facebook groups and pages related to hiking, climbing, and mountaineering in Mongolia. The results of this survey are of course skewed toward people in hiking groups around UB, so it is no surprise that over 100% of these outdoor-enthusiast respondents reported they “Always” or “Fairly often” try to minimize their impact on their environment when they are hiking, picknicking, relaxing, horseriding, or biking in the protected areas near UB. Figure 3 shows the responses to a few key questions.
Figure 3. Answers to selected questions related to outdoor recreation around Ulaanbaatar ( 15 respondents )
3A – Percent of respondents who engage in each behavior
However, a few less-straightforward takeaways also emerge from the survey and indicate outdoor recreationists have a complicated, sometimes paradoxical relationship with waste. Sixty percent of respondents indicated “Dropping food on ground to provide wildlife a food source” was not an innapropriate behavior, while 47% indicated “Carrying all artificial litter out, but leaving food scraps behind” was not innapropriate; 34% and 40% of respondents indicated they actually partake in these two behaviors, respectively. Given that this survey audience was given to outdoor enthusiasts, it is likely that the general population views these two behaviors as even less innapropriate and engages in them more frequently. This is problematic because food scraps and organic waste have a documented negative impact on wildlife and the habitat food chain. Responses about several non-waste-related behaviors are problematic as well: a minority of respondants felt "Traveling off trail to experience the natural environment" and "Walking around muddy spots on the trail" were "innapropriate" behaviors, despite these behaviors having documented negative impact on plant species density and erosion. However, this post is primarily focused on organic and inorganic waste and will not discuss these behaviors further (though they may be a topic of future posts).
These results suggest UB’s hiking enthusiasts generally have an anti-waste attitude. But what about the rest of UB’s population, who aren’t in hiking clubs, but still visit the protected areas on occasion? We asked respondants to indicate which “Innapropriate” behaviors were most commonly seen in other visitors. These respondants likely spend an above-average amount of time in the protected areas and can therefore provide a realistic view of other visitors’ behavior. It is interesting to note that the behavior most unanimously deemed “Innapropriate” by our respondants – “Littering” – was also the behavior that these respondents felt was most common in other visitors. As shown in Figure 4, 80% of respondents indicated other visitors engage in littering.
Figure 4. Percentage of respondents indicating whether other protected-area visitors engage in each “Innapropriate” behavior (15 respondents)
Figure 5. Number of years for products to fully biodegrade
Of course, I am an outsider in Mongolia. I do not speak the language fluently, and am sure I am oblivious to unspoken social mores that dictate one’s behavior. I am not so self righteous as to believe the U.S. system of LNT should be entirely replicated here, or to suggest that all Mongolians litter. But I think it is natural for people to become entrenched in their behaviors. We sometimes do things without thinking or we become habituated to our surroundings. Sometimes it takes the ramblings of a newcomer to make us think twice about our everyday actions or those of friends and strangers.
I hope this post can spur some people to reconsider their relationship with waste when they recreate in areas around Ulaanbaatar. The Leave No Trace “pack in, pack out” philosophy for outdoor ethics is a useful starting point. UB’s hiking club outdoor enthusiasts are in a good position to use peer pressure and informal enforcement to help spread awareness of LNT’s waste-related principles to other protected area visitors.
Keep an eye out for future posts about microtrash, fires, and other topics related to waste in Mongolia’s protected areas.