Prem Rai works in a hospital in Kathmandu but he loves fishing in the Bagmati river at the weekend. He fishes from the Sundarijal to Gokarna segments of the river just north of the city, stretches that are still somewhat clean. Below Gokarna, the Bagmati, which flows through the heart of Nepal’s capital, is so polluted it is almost “dead”.

But even in the “clean” areas of the river he finds his net is full of plastic bags, not fish.

Prem Rai removes plastic from his fishing net. He goes to fish in the Bagmati river every Saturday. Photo credit: Nabin Baral

With a population of about 2.5 million, including the districts of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, the Kathmandu Valley produces 523 tonnes of waste per day, out of which 12% is estimated to be plastic. Due to the lack of awareness and a dysfunctional waste management system some of the plastic and polythene bags are thrown into or dumped on the banks of the the rivers and rivulets that run through the valley, and finally end up in the Bagmati river – considered Nepal’s holiest river.

Due to easy availability, plastic and polythene bags have become integrated into daily life for people in the Kathmandu Valley, replacing older biodegradable material used for bags or packing material. Even outside the city, plastic proliferates. Kathmandu, located in the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the most beautiful natural areas in the world. But when people go out to enjoy the beauty, they leave their plastic behind.

Abhisekh Pokhrel removes polythene bags from a wild rose plant on the bank of a rivulet of the Bagmati river in Kathmandu. Photo credit: Nabin Baral

Abhisekh Pokhrel, part of a “No Polythene Bag” campaign, claimed that he had stopped using plastic bags completely and is urging others in the city to do the same. In the last few years various campaigns have been launched to clean the bags and other garbage from the rivers, but with only partial success as new plastic replaces the removed plastic.

There are laws and policies in place, but they are rarely enforced. In the face of a lackadaisical government and an uncaring public, the river cleaning campaigns – usually carried out on Saturdays – are not able to do much. Without deeper social change plastic will continue to blight the beauty of Kathmandu.

Vegetable sellers at Kalimati Fruits and Vegetable Market, the biggest in the Kathmandu Valley, use polythene bags for packaging. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
A man carries vegetables in polythene bags at Kalimati Fruits and Vegetable Market. Very few people use non-plastic shopping bags. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
A garbage mound on the bank of a tributary of the Bagmati. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
A mannequin covered with plastic at a shop on New Road, Kathmandu. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
A dysfunctional waste management system means plastic refuse is never fully cleared away. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
Garbage left by picnickers after a weekend in Shivapuri National Park. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
A boy eats rice from a polythene bag near a wheat field by the Bagmati. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
Garbage floats in the Bishnumati, one of the main tributaries of the Bagmati river, near Teku Dovan in the Kathmandu Valley. A Garbage Collection Centre of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City is barely metres away. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
A woman cuts plastic bags brought from the Garbage Collection Centre of Katmandu Metropolitian City. Some of the polythene bags are recycled but most are dumped in fields and rivers of the Kathmandu Valley. Photo credit: Nabin Baral
A polythene bag is stuck on a Peepal tree on the bank of the Bagmati in Chovar. Photo credit: Nabin Baral

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.