Engineer wants to turn Everest climbers' poo into fuel

The amount of human waste left on Mount Everest each year is becoming an environmental and health hazard. Garry Porter wants to turn it into gas for cooking and fertilizer with a biogas digester.

12 tonnes of waste is carried by porters from first base camp each year. It could become fuel

Garry Porter wants to turn human waste into useful methane gas and fertilizer. It's already a common practice in Nepal, according to the project manager. (Mount Everest Biogas Project/Facebook)
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When you're climbing Mount Everest and nature calls, you don't have many options.

Climbers can use the "poop tent" — essentially a blue barrel fitted with a plastic bag — at each official stop until the third base camp. Porters collect and haul the human waste from each stop back down the mountain.

12 tonnes of waste is removed from the first base camp alone each year.

If you trek any higher than third base camp, though, you're on your own. It's best to find a fairly private rock to do your business.

Trekkers and porters gather at Everest Base Camp, some 140km northeast of the Nepali capital Kathmandu. (Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

The human waste that is left on Everest is becoming an environmental and health hazard. It freezes in cold weather, but when the thaw begins, the waste breaks apart and makes it into waterways.

Hikers rely on that water and snow for cooking and drinking. What's more, they sometimes share their campsites with someone's former facilities.

Garry Porter, project manager for the Mount Everest Biogas Project, thinks he has a solution.

Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens  guest-host Matt Galloway.

What's the solution that you've that you've come up with?

I'll make it simpler than it really is. All we've really done is we've taken what's called a biogas digester — and there are hundreds of thousands of these in China and Tibet and Nepal.

They use them to process kitchen waste, animal waste, human waste, because it produces free methane gas and fertilizer.

It's a micro-organism inside of an anaerobic chamber where there's no oxygen, and they break waste down and produce those two byproducts.

A Nepalese porter walks with his load from Everest base camp. Porters walk for weeks, sometimes carrying supplies heavier than their own body weight. (Laurence Tan/Reuters)

So, you shovel it in and some goodness comes out of it?

Oh, yes. It's a win-win. You take a disgusting product that we don't like to talk about and you turn it into byproducts that are very usable in remote areas.

What's the complication with putting one of these things at the base of Mount Everest?

To get to the base of Mount Everest, it's a ... very difficult hike and so everything's got to come in on the back of a porter or yak. The cost of getting raw materials like cement bags or steel or wood or solar panels is very expensive.

And over the top of the digester we'll build a one-story shelter so that we can control the atmospheric environment over the digester. Because it has to be kept warm. It has to be 20 to 30 Celsius.

The biogas digester will be located at Gorak Shep, a village near Mount Everest.

Can it be done?

Yes, because it's being done. It's just they haven't done it at elevation and they haven't done it where the primary feeding mechanism is human waste only.

We know it can be done, we've tested it. I mean that's an engineer's dream. You research, design and then you test it.

If you're able to do it and it works what what would those byproducts be used for in that area at the base of Mount Everest?

The main product, the methane gas, they will use for cooking. They already do. I mean they haul up there propane tanks — very expensive — to cook for both the climbers as well all the tourists that come to basecamp. So use it for cooking or lighting. And again it's free.

The second byproduct is the effluent that comes out is a fertilizer that's very productive. It's a tremendous resource in the world. You have a waste product that has value and yet it's a taboo to talk about it.  

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Ashley Mak.

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