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Properly dispose of campsite trash

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Sure, the foil from a few baked potatoes or Styrofoam plates from a small campsite get-together doesn’t seem like much, but add up the trash from thousands of campers every year, and we’ve all got a dirty problem. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) developed the
Leave No Trace (LNT) program to educate campers about the eco-effects of their outdoor pursuits, addressing in particular the need to properly dispose of camp-related garbage.

How to pack out what you pack in

The LNT philosophy for campsite garbage is “pack in, pack out.” That’s right, if you bring it in, you need to carry it back out with you. Modern garbage takes a long time to biodegrade (paper = two to four weeks; cigarette butt = two to five years; disposable diaper = 10-20 years; aluminum soda or beer can = 200-400 years—even longer in alpine regions where decomposition is especially slow),[1] posing hazards to wildlife in the process. Since leaving rancid refuse in the pristine backcountry isn’t an option, follow these important waste disposal methods carefully to ensure a truly "no trace" campsite:

  • Menu prep : Since most camping waste comes from the eating portion of your trip, pay special attention to this issue. Choose one-pot meals (which require little preparation and fewer utensils) and light-weight snacks. Also, you may find that many campsites have fire bans in place, making cooked meals impossible, so consider no-cook meals instead.
  • Pre-cycle to reduce waste ahead of time: Most potential trash can be left at home with a little preparation. This means you should strip and recycle the packaging from food items and any new gear before you leave home and then reorganize it in reusable containers that you can bring back with you. Your back will thank you as this simple pre-pack step also reduces your backpack’s weight. Lighten your load even further by avoiding disposable dishes and cutlery—they may be convenient, but they’re no friend of the earth.
  • Make it easy on yourself: You’ll inevitably have a bit of garbage—a banana peel or an energy bar wrapper—so when you’re on the trail, have a take-away bag handy. By making it easy for yourself to deposit small pieces of garbage as you travel, you won’t be tempted to throw it over your shoulder.
  • Find recycling bins: Many sustainably managed campgrounds now have centralized recycling facilities for their visitors. When you check into your site, ask whether there are eco-stations, and if not, request that the campground install some in the future.
  • Don’t leave leftovers for the bears: Be sure to make only as much food as you can eat, then pick up any leftovers and food scraps and deposit them into a sealed container to be packed out. When in bear country, be sure to store leftovers 100 feet from the tent and kitchen site, and hang it 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from tree trunks. This will make it inaccessible to hungry bears in search of a snack. Hunters and fishers should be careful to dispose of viscera so that the area doesn’t become unsightly (dispose away from trails, campsites, and water). Even better, be prepared to pack out what you bring in—all of it.
  • Undesirable camp habits: Don’t burn or bury your garbage. Getting a fire hot enough to totally destroy waste like plastic cups, aluminum foil, or apple cores can be dangerous, and burning non-organics may release toxins into the air. Buried food can often be dug up by animals and may encourage them to become dependent on humans for an unnatural food supply.
  • Special considerations: Human waste and cleaning-related refuse disposal require special care. Proper campsite toilet and wash-up principles should be practiced at all times.

Find it! Trash containers and bags

Lots of camping trips only require a simple set of containers or plastic bags for keeping your trash organized, but if you’re heading to bear country, a more secure option may be in order.

Properly disposing of campsite trash helps you go green because…

  • Waste is unsightly and much of it doesn't readily biodegrade.
  • Food waste attracts animals, causing them to rely on humans.

Many assume that leaving food scraps behind is an acceptable practice, since this kind of garbage will biodegrade in time. However, neither burying nor burning organic waste, like orange peels and eggshells, will adequately break down the food. Inevitably this type of trash attracts animals, making them dependent on humans,[2]and resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to park equipment and vehicles every year.[3] Discarded trash may also suffocate and kill rare and endangered plants by depriving them of light and water.[4] Finally, campsite garbage can injure and even kill wildlife. Every year, 100,000 marine mammals and turtles die from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic debris.[5]

Over 270 million people visit national parks throughout the US annually[6] and America’s 25,000 campgrounds (commercial, public, and private combined),[7] are visited by over 45 million people every year.[8] Many people enjoy the outdoors every year, and yet the average number of rural acres lost to city expansion is about 1 million annually.[9][10] The result is that many popular areas are increasingly overcrowded. Consider the combined effects of millions of outdoor visitors. Improperly handled garbage from one camp excursion may seem insignificant, but pile up the trash from thousands of campground visits and you’ve got a seriously degraded outdoor experience for all.[11]

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