September 21, 2023

Can Wales’ highest mountain really become plastic-free?

Yr Wyddfa summit

The top of Yr Wyddfa is bathed in sunshine, but this area is not as unpolluted as it should be

The summit of Yr Wyddfa rises 1085m above the Welsh countryside.

It’s the highest point in Britain until you get to Ben Nevis in Scotland, 418 kilometers away as the crow flies.

The remoteness of Yr Wyddfa, or Snowdon as it is also known, certainly makes it one of the most pristine environments in the country.

But research shows that like many more densely populated places, it is besieged by a growing threat to the natural world: plastic.

A survey carried out for Eryri – also called Snowdonia National Park – found microplastics in the soil samples along the Llanberis trail to the summit.

Significant amounts were also found on the summit itself, not to mention the amount of visible litter left on the slopes.

The mountain and its protectors try to fight back. The park launched the Plastic Free Yr Wyddfa project in April with the goal of making the mountain plastic-free as the first in the world.

For Alec Young, the Plastic Free Yr Wyddfa officer, this work is personal. Born and raised in the park, he returned after several years with a background in sustainability, seeking “a more local impact on the place I love” and “changing it for the better”.

There is no suggestion that the environmental police guard Eryri’s entrances and remove single-use plastic from unwary visitors.

Instead, Alec and the project’s partners are trying to encourage behavior change among visitors, local residents and business owners, some of whom are already on board.

The goal is to significantly reduce all litter on the mountain, with a focus on single use plastics.

Fiona and Rob Nicholson run Plas Coch Guest House in Llanberis.

Formerly headteachers in South East England, they wanted to “stop being tourists who came to the area” and contribute to the local economy and environment.

With 95% of their guests coming specifically to climb Yr Wyddfa, the pair have taken a hard look at how they can help walkers eat and drink without impacting the environment.

Fiona said: “We launched our packed lunch initiative and called it fuel for your mountain day, because we thought it wasn’t just lunch. It should get you safely up and back down the mountain.

“We ask guests what sandwich they want and we make that, and then we have a brown paper bag to put that in, and then we put out those other things for them to take with them.

“We have metal water bottles they can take with them. We have bottles and ask them what kind of hot drink they want in it.

“We have fresh fruit and we send them up the mountain with a green compost bag and ask them to bring back whatever they bring.”

There is also a recycling station at the guest house where guests can deposit their used paper bags and any food waste – or soft plastic if they have their own – for composting or recycling. They also have a water filling station for passing tourists.

They have stopped offering anything that comes in single-use plastic, such as packets of biscuits or UHT milk jars, and replaced them with fresh home-baked flapjacks, Welsh cakes and jugs of fresh milk for guests to enjoy themselves.

The couple said making such changes would have saved them around £1,000 a year in waste costs, as they would no longer have to pay for commercial waste collection.

“Every time we’ve done something to get rid of single-use plastics, it feels like we’ve improved the quality of what we’re doing,” says Rob.

‘A band-Aid’

John Harold, director of Cymdeithas Eryri, the Snowdonia Society, said the organization had been on the “sharp edge” of clearing debris from the mountain and the wider national park for more than 50 years.

“Over time, it has become more and more dominated by single-use plastics,” he said.

John cited a garbage collection that was conducted on just one section of the trail, yielding several hundred disposable bottles.

“When you multiply that across the area and over the year, these are phenomenal numbers,” he said.

Cymdeithas Eryri removes approximately one ton of litter from Yr Wyddfa and the main tourist hotspots in Eryri every year. Since most of it is light plastic waste, it is a huge volume.

He said the project was about “respect”, “pride” and “inspiring people”.

He added: “This is not a place where you can work your way to an answer.”

Snowdon Mountain Railway operates the visitor train and Hafod Eryri, the summit cafe, as well as a number of outlets at the foot of the mountain.

It is preparing to resume travel to Yr Wyddfa and reopen the cafe in June after nearly four years of pandemic closure.

The railroad’s commercial manager Vince Hughes said his first meeting with Alec had opened his eyes to potential changes.

“I think a lot of people think it’s plastic bottles, drink bottles, etc., but as he explained, if you look at our other shopping areas, the amount of single-use plastic went unnoticed,” said Hughes.

An “easy fix” was for magnets to be individually wrapped in plastic and immediately thrown away when put on display.

“Why are they putting them in these packages that we don’t want and nobody uses?” he asked.

“Refill for the Hill”

Supplying a café on top of a mountain without its own water supply is no mean feat if you want to completely avoid the use of plastic.

The café needs 10,000 liters of water every day that is transported up by train to meet its own use and toilet needs, and cannot suddenly switch to refilling bottles for people.

Restocking the supplies in the cafe will also be a challenging task. Switching to cans has not been a success before because they are not resealable.

But solutions are being sought. A water drilling company will for the time being investigate whether it can extract drinking water from the mountain itself, which could be a game changer for the café.

Alec said it was important not to “demonize” plastic, which, when used properly, can be fantastically useful.

The trick instead is to encourage visitors to reduce usage and get rid of the disposable plastic they bring with them.

“There’s a lot out there, how do you convince people to better prepare, think differently, ‘top up for the hill’, reuse and recycle,” Alec said.

Catherine and Lee Munton

Catherine and Lee Munton agree with the “positive message” of the campaign

So what do Yr Wyddfa visitors think of the initiative?

“We’re all about sustainability – I think that’s a really positive message,” says Catherine Munton from Newcastle upon Tyne.

She and her husband Lee were not surprised when they learned how much waste was being collected. “It’s terrible that people don’t take it home,” Catherine added.

Michelle Marshall and Sharon Langton

Michelle Marshall and Sharon Langton believe people should take their rubbish home with them

Michelle Marshall and Sharon Langton of Middleton, near Manchester, said more bins could help.

“Why don’t people just put [rubbish] in their bag. Everyone has a backpack – just take it home,” Sharon added.

Derek Littlejohn

Derek Littlejohn was disappointed with the amount of trash he saw

Derek Littlejohn from Aberdeenshire was disappointed with the amount of plastic waste he had seen.

“I just walked up and saw how much plastic is on the mountain itself. It’s a shame to see it in such a state,” he said. He was in favor of going plastic-free.

“Anything that stops this from happening would be a great thing to do.”

Andrew Franco

Andrew Franco doesn’t think people should use plastic while hiking

“I feel like as a hiker you probably have a job appreciating al
l the nature you’re walking in,” says Andrew Franco of California. “Reusable water bottles, thermoses – great ideas. You don’t need plastic bottles.” If you have snacks, wrap them in paper towels or parchment paper – it’s easy. You don’t need plastic for whatever you bring.”

Additional reporting by George Herd.

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