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Ekaterina Anguelova, part of the team of “Clean Mountains” campaign, shares her view on the human–waste–nature relationship, which mountain tourists rarely consider. How does garbage accumulate and how serious is the problem? Is it relevant to talk about “wild and untouched” nature? How do observations on ecology of garbage change our thinking about waste management?

Ekaterina’s text is part of the Swimming Pool’s “New Ecologies” project, which seeks new approaches to the concept of “environment”.

Почистване в планината, © Снимка: Jean-Francois Pauly

The day of the mountain cleaner starts at nine with a briefing after breakfast. We gather in a circle on a sunny meadow next to the camp, warm-up and assign tasks for the day. Most of the group stays at the main disposal site near the mountain hut, and the remaining volunteers head to cover the hiking trails in the area.

Mountain cleaning is a varied discipline that showcases different approaches – the extreme cleaners who descend down steep slopes to extract rubbish jammed between trees, the marathoners who specialize in plastic bags, wet wipes, and cigarette butts along the trails, and last but not least, the steady dumpster aficionados who stay near the hut and fill sack after sack at the ditch. The discipline has its equipment – gloves, sacks, picks and shovels. Being a cleaner is a way of being present in the mountain and affords a particular perspective on it. Those of us who have been involved in the initiative for multiple years have developed a sensitivity to the ecology of waste and how we interact with it – where is it most likely to be found, how long has it been there, and how to approach its extraction and removal.

The annual mountain cleanups organized by Environmental Association Za Zemiata (For the Earth) have taken place since 1999. What started out as an initiative of a group of friends from Stara Zagora grew into an organized activity which attracted hundreds of volunteers over the years. Cumulatively, we have collected over 110 tons of waste from the Bulgarian mountains which were subsequently transported to municipal landfills and recycling facilities.

The format of the “Clean Mountains” campaign is changing as we approach the 25th anniversary of the cleanups. We have already cleaned around all the mountain huts in the national parks and are moving beyond the most strictly protected areas to lesser-known terrains such as Chairski Lakes in the Western Rhodopes, Petrova Niva in Strandzha and Belasitsa Nature Park. For the past two years, our activities have expanded to a more systematic level of work including advocacy and collaborations with the administration of protected areas.

The changes in our activities are partly a product of the generational transition in the organizing team, partly due to an appetite for variety, but mostly a consequence of the questions we ask ourselves. Why and how do we continue to attract dozens of people each year to spend their free time ankle-deep in trash? What do we learn from the mountain dumps? How do we define our current goals through the lens of years of experience?

Communications-wise, mountain cleanups are related to two concepts – nature and waste. If someone asked me to describe the activities of the organization after my first cleanup in 2014, I probably would have answered that they are events in which volunteers clean natural areas of trash. On the face of it, this is quite a reasonable description because nature and waste are words we use daily without questioning. Weeks spent working the hut dump sites since then make me doubt the truthfulness of this first impression.

Attentive reflection on what we see during the mountain cleanups shows that there is no meaningful separation between nature and human activity. The campaign initiatives do not help by erasing the traces of human influence in otherwise wild mountain areas. On the contrary, they introduce another type of human activity into the environment, one that counteracts the previous ones. When the notion of nature is used as an aesthetic ideal for deriving the value of certain places by presenting them as wild and untouched by human activity, this in a roundabout way leads to the legitimation of the practices through which we accumulate waste in our urban everyday lives.

William Cronon explores the development of the romantic idea of nature untouched by humans as a construct of the very same consumer culture that is supposedly absent from the wild.

Historically, the interest in spending prolonged periods of time in scenic natural areas as a form of recreation is a modern phenomenon accompanying the emergence of the urban middle class. Only people who do not make their living from the land can imagine that its authentic appearance is one from which humans are absent.

In 1872, the world’s first national park was founded in Yellowstone, USA. In the following decades, Canada, New Zealand and Australia delineated parks on their territory, and in the early 20th century the first protected areas appeared in Europe, Africa and Asia as well. Yellowstone was singled out for the grandeur of the local landscape and was used to reinforce the narrative of America’s exceptionality through its nature. Considerations related to the preservation and promotion of the richness of plant and animal species in the park arose more than half a century after its establishment. The common practice of displacing the indigenous inhabitants of national parks beyond their borders creates the illusion that these areas have endured without human intervention. This process of depopulation of areas traditionally inhabited by herders has prioritized the views of the more recently established communities of tourists and conservationists.

Bulgaria’s first protected area, the Silkosia Reserve in Strandzha, was established in 1921, and the first national park in the Vitosha Mountain was created in 1934. The formation of institutions, legislation and management plans related to protected areas in the following decades is proof that wild nature is by no means free from human intervention. In the mountains, the regulation of human activity and its traces occurs through systematic planning that reflects the understanding of the times. If waste management is taken as a case study, we can clearly observe the changing attitudes to the subject.

The 1958 regulations for the bylaws of mountain huts and shelters state that “waste must be collected and thrown into the bins and pits provided for it.”

It is precisely these pits, used for years as dumps and then buried, that we target during the cleanups. In the Protected Areas Act of 2022 and the Rila National Park Management Plan 2001-2010, pollution of protected areas is prohibited, and solid waste and wastewater associated with tourist activities are identified as high-level threats to nature of a local character. The change in regulations sets a new perspective on waste, which has gone from a harmless mass with the potential to be buried to an active hazard that must be monitored and prevented. What is the proper place for our waste? Garbage is a reference to the paradox of the idea of clean nature - our modern understanding of its safe location is that it should be outside of populated areas and areas of mass human activity, that is, in nature. Whatever terrain waste ends up in becomes non-nature. Therefore, the areas that are presented as most special and worthy of protection must be protected from pollution. Of course, the generation of waste in these areas does not cease, but is ignored or brushed aside, so their status of exclusivity is not jeopardized. This dissonance between ideal and practice has led to situations such as that of mount Everest, one of the most inaccessible places on the surface of the planet, which has become a dumping ground for abandoned equipment and the corpses of alpinists that can not decompose there because of the extreme conditions. During cleanups, we are used to being greeted with the phrase "It's clean here!", which within a few days of work and several hundred sacks of collected waste is disproved. Thinking of nature as clean by definition prevents us from taking into account the real need for more effective waste management practices.

The theologian Brian Brock, who works on the ethics of garbage, proposes that we consider waste not as a property of objects but as a way in which we relate to them.

When we throw something away, we distance it from ourselves, cease to pay attention to it, and stop being responsible for it. This attitude is a choice we make every day, and is normalized within capitalist culture, where disposable goods lead to increased consumption and more profit.

On a physical level, garbage is not disposed of, it is produced. The emergence of mountain dumps is not a string of random accumulations, but a series of decisions. We have come across old hut keeper manuals that describe the recommended width, depth and distance from the hut of pits that served as hut dumps.

An example of garbage as an attitude is the source of the largest volume of waste in the mountains - unused buildings. The Belasitsa mountain in the south of Bulgaria is a border zone where civilian access was restricted during communist times. Today, some of the former military buildings on its territory are used as huts, such as Lopovo and Kongur, while others are crumbling shells stripped by the scavengers of recyclable materials. The fate of many other military sites, unfinished hotels and shepherd's huts in the Bulgarian mountains is similar. Our attitude towards these buildings determines whether they can be used in some way or whether they will be treated as waste.

We do not see a distinction between nature and waste in the mountainous areas where we clean. Everything that enters the environment becomes part of the hillside, forest or river wherever it ends up. Anthropologist Joshua Renaud writes about the symbiotic nature of wastes, which “as they circulate and deform…mix with people and places, with which they mutually transform or become together.” Ferns and clover sprout in cans, bottles, and tires, the acidic soil which tops buried dumpster pits invites the growth of nettles and raspberries, layers of trash mix with soil and root systems. Waste is not a homogenous mass of inert substances, and its tendency to intermingle with its environment is the reason why it must be relocated away from the mountains. Bottle glass and broken hut plates may not interact with their surroundings as actively, but leaching batteries, decomposing plastic and crumbling asbestos affect the health of animals, soils and water.

During the cleanups, we stop perceiving the waste as a common mass by highlighting the different objects and substances that make it up. We don't just separate the materials into those that can be recycled (clean glass bottles and jars, beer cans, hard plastics) and those that will go to the municipal landfill. We are looking for insight into the stories of garbage. In archaeology, waste analysis is a traditional technique for extracting information about the daily lives of our ancestors. In hut dumps, we learn about the lives of previous generations in the mountains and observe changing trends of production and consumption.

Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic that contains no natural molecules in its composition, was developed by Leo Bakeland in 1907. Coca-Cola introduced the first single-use plastic bottle in 1978. In the landfills around abandoned buildings in the mountains that were last used half a century ago, we find a limited range of waste - jar and bottle caps (but not the jars and bottles themselves, which were reused), medicine blisters, bones from small animals that were probably cooked. The older cleaners with whom we work through these sites talk about their childhood and the culture of keeping and repairing objects, refusing until last to turn their possessions into waste. After the seventies, the dumps begin to be distinguished by a variety of brands and products (deodorant "Courage", cream "Danube Waves", croissants "22 Carats" with the motto "The taste of the 21st century!"). In border areas such as the forests of Strandzha, we have found suitcases full of clothes, probably left by refugees seeking to cross the border, and the deserted shepherd's huts in the Balkan Mountains illustrate changes in Bulgarian mountain pastoralism.

The “Clean Mountains” campaign aims to put mountain cleanups into a systematic perspective. Waste management can become a model of thinking and consumption, fed by the understanding that all elements in the environment interact. Nature is not a passive victim of human intervention, nor a backdrop against which to project our desires for cleanliness, beauty, or existential meaning. It responds to our activity in its language. Evolutionary processes encourage adaptation - recent research has found bacteria and insect larvae that digest plastic. The ecology of garbage questions the boundaries between organic and synthetic matter, living and non-living nature.

It's impossible to remove all the solid waste around our huts, hiking trails, and forest clearings by hand, but we can sort through and clean up our attitudes. As we volunteer in the mountains, we learn to see the environment as our home, where we conduct ourselves with respect and more consideration for the needs of our non-human neighbors. We are challenged to come face to face with the garbage we have created and the uncomfortable truths about our way of life that it reveals. Even though we often go through feelings of anger, disgust and despair in the process, we shoulder their weight and collectively look for ways to take responsibility.

Photos: 1. Photographer: Jean-Francois Pauly; 2. Archival photo of Environmental Association Za Zemiata; All other photos are from the author’s archive.

EKATERINA ANGUELOVA is an impact evaluation assistant at the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Since 2014, she has been a volunteer for the “Clean Mountains” campaign and in 2022 she joined the organizational team.


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