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Machu Picchu trash crisis - Tourists at the ancient site in Peru            Source: Rodolfo Pimentel / CC BY-SA 4.0

Trashy Tourism Threatens Machu Picchu’s Future


One of the world’s most famous historic sites is being threatened by a trash crisis. Machu Picchu is at risk because of the waste left by tourists. The local municipality and community in the area have now come together to deal with what is being called ‘the Machu Picchu trash crisis’. This is essential for the future of the ancient site but also for its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The famous site is located towards the south of Peru. Machu Picchu is an Inca citadel that was part of the private estate of an emperor. It was abandoned in the mid-16 th century after the Spanish conquest of Peru. Its massive dry-stone walls are an architectural wonder. It is estimated that 1.6 million tourists from all over the world visit Machu Picchu each year, even though Peruvian authorities restrict access to the area.

Machu Picchu Trash Crisis

However, the popularity of the historic site has resulted in a waste crisis in the area, especially in the town of “Aguas Calientes, the gateway to the citadel,” reports Al Jazeera.  The visitors often leave their waste behind, which is a major problem. This includes many plastic water bottles, which can end up in the local river. The local authorities struggled to manage the garbage effectively because there are no roads to the site and all the waste must be taken away by railroads. According to the Al Jazeera report, now a ton of plastic bottles is processed daily to be transported out.

Machu Picchu trash crisis - Garbage train ready to travel out of Machu Picchu, Peru. (fabio lamanna / Adobe stock)

Machu Picchu trash crisis - Garbage train ready to travel out of Machu Picchu, Peru. (fabio lamanna / Adobe stock)

The problem has become so bad that two years ago, UNESCO threatened to strip Machu Picchu of its status as a World Heritage site. There are now real fears that it could lose this prestigious status, and this would be an embarrassment for the Peruvians. In addition, the rare flora and fauna in the district have been harmed by the garbage left behind by tourists.

Green Initiatives Pave the Way

The local community is very concerned about the problem as it may have an impact on the number of tourists who visit the area and are vital for the local economy. Moreover, they want to protect their heritage and the environment. As a result, a private initiative was started that began to recycle the countless plastic water bottles left by visitors. 

Every day water bottles are collected, and then they are recycled. Up to one ton of plastic bottles are being recycled every day. This involves them being turned into blocks that can be easily taken away from the area, but this is simply not enough. Municipal planning law forbids the building of a large-scale recycling installation. Currently, there is only a small private recycling plant dealing with a huge amount of waste.

Local hotels and restaurants are also participating in a scheme that involves recycling cooking oil into biocarbon. This is then used by farmers in the district.  Cooking oil has often ended up in the river in the past.

Al Jazeera reports that the “municipal authorities are trying to turn the area into the country's first eco-friendly zone.” They are working with private groups and businesses to deal with the Machu Picchu trash crisis. This includes persuading local hotels and other businesses to adopt a no plastic policy, for example, using only recyclable bags.

Local municipal authorities are urging tourists to bring their own recyclable water bottles and to take them away with them, after their visit to Machu Picchu. According to Al Jazeera, “water dispenser stations are going to be installed” around Aguas Calientes. This would reduce the number of plastic bottles being left in the town, which is one of the main causes of the crisis.

Machu Picchu trash crisis - Garbage with train in Aguas Calientes in Peru. (Pakhnyushchyy / Adobe stock)

Machu Picchu trash crisis - Garbage with train in Aguas Calientes in Peru. (Pakhnyushchyy / Adobe stock)

While there is no immediate threat to strip Machu Picchu of its World Heritage status, there is still a risk that it could happen. More needs to be done to protect the historic complex and its environment. It seems that the municipality of Aguas Calientes faces an ongoing struggle to deal with the trash crisis.

Top image: Machu Picchu trash crisis - Tourists at the ancient site in Peru            Source: Rodolfo Pimentel / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Ed Whelan



I would do what they do at Everest - Nepal makes people have a specific visa to get to the mountain. If one has to get a specific visa to get to Macchu Picchu, they can limit the number of tourists, and also make them *haul* out their trash. If there is a requirement for reusable water bottles [I have one that has the filter integral to it] then there will be fewer plastic single use bottles to pollute.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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