It was sunrise at treeline on Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s fifty-four 14,000-foot peaks. We had been walking for a couple hours already, so we stopped for a snack. I put the Clif Bar wrapper in my pocket. Knowing the intense high altitude sun was coming soon, I put my sunglasses in the pocket with the wrapper. A few minutes later the sun rose above the crimson cloudbank on the horizon, and I pulled out my sunglasses. The glasses lifted the wrapper out of my pocket, and the mountain wind caught it as it fell. I tried to grab it, but it wriggled away like a fish out of water and took off across the tundra. I took a few steps after it, but the foil lifted like a kite and disappeared.
Later, I saw a plastic bag sitting next to the trail. “Litterbugs,” I said out loud as I reached down to pick it up, then remembered my trash, likely tangled in the krummholz somewhere below. The person who left the plastic bag probably sat on it to keep it from blowing away while they finished their sandwich, but then forgot about it, stood up, and the bag escaped.
As I walked along that day, I thought about how most of us these days don’t just throw trash in the woods or out the window of our cars as was common a couple of generations ago, yet many of us are still accidental litter bugs.
From personal experience – experience I’m not so proud of – here’s the ways I’ve accidentally left trash in the wrong places, and what I do now to avoid it.
Micro trash: When a tiny corner of a candy bar or energy gel wrapper, or “twisty-tie” bag closure thingamajig escapes your best intentions. Try not to tear the wrapper entirely into pieces. If you leave the torn corner attached to the rest of the wrapper it’s harder to loose it.
The escaped prisoner: My problem on Longs Peak. Carry lunch in a small bag so you always have a place to put the trash instead of your pocket. When you leave trash in your car, keep the trash in a sturdy bag so the inevitable mountain wind doesn’t grab your Happy Meal debris while your doors are open in the parking lot.
The biodegradable detritus: Sure, the remnants of your chips will eventually be eaten or rot into the soil, but in National Parks, where wildlife have a diet heavy in human foods, animal biopsies have revealed squirrels and chipmunks are dying of heart disease from clogged arteries just like their two-legged benefactors. Eat it or take it with you.
The bigger picture: It’s amazing how ugly trash is in the wilderness, but then we go home and buy cubic tonnes of packaging that we then send out of sight and out of mind into a landfill. Even then, it’s still there. Manufacturing over-packages everything, but with the Internet business model, the packaging is not only a waste of resources but also a waste of money, and people are tired of buying a postage stamp sized memory card for their camera and struggling to open four layers of trash to get to it.
In the most pristine places, like the wildly remote mountains of Western Canada where CMH Summer Adventures happen, the sign of humanity is almost non-existant. Let's keep it that way.