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Leave No Trace: Why Those Banana Peels, Snack Mix, and Apple Cores You Bring Hiking Won't Decompose on the Side of a Trail

When we think about compostable materials like banana peels and apple cores, it's easy to assume they would decompose harmlessly when discarded in the great outdoors. This overlooks several environmental factors that significantly slow down the decomposition process, especially in non-confined settings like the sides of roads or hiking trails. This misconception contributes to littering, which has severe, broad implications for ecosystems and wildlife. Let's dive into the reasons why organic materials won't break down as quickly as one might think on a hiking trail, and then explore the importance of packing out what we pack in.

Hiking Trails Lack the Ideal Conditions for Proper Decomposition

For organic matter to decompose rapidly, specific conditions are essential. These include the right temperature, appropriate moisture levels, and the presence of decomposers such as bacteria and fungi. These microorganisms play a crucial role in breaking down organic material, facilitating the natural recycling process.

On the side of a road or along a hiking trail, these ideal conditions are rarely met. The necessary microorganisms might be present only in limited quantities, if at all. Moreover, the environment in these areas often lacks the consistent humidity or warmth needed for effective decomposition. For instance, shaded areas might remain too cool, while exposed areas could become too dry.

Additionally, external factors such as exposure to direct sunlight or pollutants from vehicles can further impede the decomposition process. The absence of sufficient heat, moisture, and microbial activity means that organic matter decomposes much more slowly. As a result, organic debris can persist significantly longer in these environments compared to more suitable, natural settings.

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste on Hiking Trails

While banana peels and apple cores can be grown in nature, they are not native to all environments. Introducing them into areas where they don't belong creates unforeseen consequences. They provide an unnatural food source for wildlife, disrupting local ecosystems. There's also the risk of introducing non-native seeds of fruits and vegetables you may bring into the environment, which can lead to invasive plant species spreading.

Don't Bury Your Food Waste in the Wild

Burying food waste while hiking or camping is not a solution, and creates a big problem. This practice is disruptive to the surrounding, natural environment as it alters the natural soil structure and composition. This practice compacts the soil, reducing its aeration and water infiltration capacity, which negatively impacts plant root growth and soil microorganisms. Additionally, burying can introduce foreign substances or pathogens to the soil, harming local flora and fauna. It disrupts existing decomposer communities by creating anaerobic conditions that slow down decomposition and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Burying organic matter in the wild leads to imbalances in the ecosystem, severely affecting soil health and biodiversity.

Food Waste on Hiking Trails Creates Visual Pollution and Disrupts Natural Animal Behavior

Litter, even organic, contributes to visual pollution, which detracts from the natural beauty of an area and diminish the experience for others. Food waste can attract wildlife to areas frequented by humans, which alters their natural behaviors and makes them dependent on human-provided foods. This dependency has negative impacts on their health and increase the risk of human-wildlife conflicts.

Food Waste Left in the Wild Has Longer Decomposition Times

It's a common misconception that items like banana peels and apple cores decompose quickly. In reality, a banana peel can take up to two years to decompose in the wild, while an apple core might take even longer. These timelines can extend further in less-than-ideal conditions, such as those found alongside roads and trails .

Leave No Trace, Pack Out Your Food Waste When Hiking

From an ethical standpoint, leaving waste of any kind in natural environments goes against Leave No Trace principles. These guidelines are designed to minimize the impact of outdoor activities on the environment and encourage everyone to pack out all trash, including biodegradable items. By adhering to these principles, we help preserve natural landscapes for future generations to enjoy.

Do Not Leave "Compostable" Dog Poop Bags on Walking Paths

Compostable dog poop bags should not be left on a trail, as they still require specific conditions to break down properly, which are not present in these environments. Additionally, many compostable dog poop bags are unregulated and may disintegrate into microplastics, contributing to environmental pollution. Home composting dog poop is generally not recommended because it can contain harmful pathogens that require high temperatures to be neutralized, temperatures that are difficult to achieve in a home composting setup. Most industrial composting facilities also will not accept dog poop due to these pathogens and the potential health risks they pose.

While banana peels and apple cores are biodegradable, they do not decompose as harmlessly or quickly as many believe when left in natural environments. The slow decomposition process, coupled with potential negative impacts on ecosystems and wildlife, highlights the importance of packing out what we pack in. By making a conscious effort to leave no trace, we contribute to the preservation of natural beauty and ensure that these spaces remain vibrant and welcoming for all! Click here to continue learning about composting.


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