Wilderness Wanderings: Backcountry trash leaves a large footprint | SteamboatToday.com
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Wilderness Wanderings: Backcountry trash leaves a large footprint

Bob Korch
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

We have all come across trash in backcountry, including our local wilderness areas Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and the Flat Tops.

Hopefully, we reach down and do our small part to pick it up, place it in a trash bag we keep in our pack and carry it out.

If nature is left to take care of it, decomposition takes a long time. A very long time.



Here in the arid West, a long time is even longer because water is a key component to breaking down materials. Likewise, our long winters reduce the active time for decomposition.

Have you ever noticed that ghost towns are predominantly in the western half of the country?

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The wetter, more humid climate in the eastern U.S. breaks down wood and other materials much more quickly.

Old pioneer structures such as those found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are there because they have largely been restored, whereas in the West old buildings are more intact except for the weight of snowpack.

The most common trail litter may be water and soda bottles, and aluminum cans. Plastic bottles take from 70 to 450 years to decompose due to PET according to the organization Leave No Trace and various internet sources.

Count on aluminum drink cans to be around for many generations — 80 to 200 years — unless picked up. Talk about sustainable waste.

Tin cans, comparatively speaking, are not so bad at 50 years on average for decomposition. But still: Pack it in, pack it out.

What about glass bottles or other items made from glass? Please don’t even think of leaving one behind, because even though glass breaks, it does not break down.

Aluminum foil which is easily and completely recyclable, is another item that never breaks down to full decomposition, even when burned in a campfire. Nor does burying it help.

Plastic bags such as those used to carry our purchases from supermarkets or other retail stores items are soon to be banned in all of Colorado. Good thing for our forests, because on average they take 10-20 years to decompose.

But the thicker plastic used in garbage can liners and other sturdy bags might take a millennium to break down.

Uh oh, that means those doggie poop bags left by the trail could be around for 1,000 years. Double don’t, please. Carry them out in an extra plastic bag kept in a fanny or daypack.

How about monofilament fishing line? Six hundred years according to the South Carolina Department of Resources.

Rope is comparatively not so bad at just 3-14 months for natural materials like hemp. But rope or cord made from synthetic materials decomposes much more slowly.

Those apple cores and orange and banana peels from lunch on the trail: Please pack them out. Although apple cores decompose fairly quickly at just two weeks, it takes the environment six months to two years to break down orange peels and six weeks to six months for banana peels.

Cigarette butts may be small but they leave a long lasting footprint at 18 months to 10 years because the filters are largely made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic. They can also contain a trace amount of toxins such as cadmium, arsenic and lead.

And last, but certainly not least is unburied toilet paper which takes a minimum of five weeks to decompose, depending on the amount of rain.

Bottom line: Please practice Leave No Trace when you are in the backcountry. Take only pictures, leave only memories.

Bob Korch is trail crew leader with Friends of Wilderness, which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public about the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops wilderness areas. For more information, visit FriendsOfWilderness.com.


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