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Don't take it or don't leave it – rubbish and tissue in the mountain

2018/07/26 - 15:10 - Taulliraju and Pucajircas in the background.Our high camp
Wild-camping is a pure joy. But would the environment cope with an extra burden of trash you leave?

During my recent expedition to the Andes, Peru, one thing struck me: the amount of trash. Rubbish was everywhere outdoors, especially in and around standard camping grounds, in otherwise beautiful environment with fantastic scenery.

We stayed over 15 days in camping in the Cordillera Blanca area. None of the places where we camped were an officially managed one (where no one would clean up the mess campers might leave), but none of them were completely wild, either, in which no one had ever stayed before. The places where we camped were more or less the standard camping grounds for those who venture to the area or mountains or routes.

The amount of rubbish in any of the basecamps was appalling. There was no place where you do not see toilet tissues. In Ishinca Valley, we spotted a place right next to the river behind a boulder that was full of toilet tissues and shit, despite the fact any one could walk so easily on a flat-ish field away from the river for 50-100 metres to find a private place (boulders etc) for toilet. In Santa Cruz Valley, a little 50-metre-high hill behind our tents was littered with toilet tissue everywhere. Plastic bags and cups were also in common sight. In some cases plastic bags with rubbish inside were also found under a rock or stone, which were apparently left knowingly.

Admittedly it seemed true Peruvian locals do not care much about rubbish; they casually throw rubbish everywhere. I am afraid the hygiene standard is pretty low in Peru, which is no good for the local themselves, but that is their problem. However, that can not be an excuse for visiting tourists (campers, trekkers, climbers etc), who constitute a bulk of users in remote mountain areas, to leave their rubbish in mountain.

I have heard many times people in the UK claiming this is bio-degradable and throwing such rubbish into wild. I feel that is very wrong. People should know pretty much everything in this world degrades with time and is mainly bio-degradable. Even notorious plastic is bio-degradable and steel cans are degradable. They just take many many years to degrade like over a millenium. Is it acceptable to throw away a plastic bottle in the wild because it is by definition bio-degradable in 100–500 years (Source 1 and Source 2 for the timescale)? No, never.

2018/07/27 - 15:47 - Orange peel left by some oneOrange peel left by some one
Orange peel takes 2 years to decompose in mud in Scottish hill, and likely much longer in more arid or alpine terrain.

As a more typical example, banana skin is bio-degradable, as people claim. But it would take longer than most people would guess: up to 2 years if left in Scottish hill (Source). The same with orange peel and a whole apple. It might be acceptable if only one person every 5 years climbed the hill and left banana skin, which of course is a light-year away from the reality! Allegedly Ben Nevis alone, the highest mountain in the British Isles at 1345m, sees 100,000 people every year (Source). Imagine what would happen if every visitor of Ben Nevis threw banana skin? Fortunately, many of them are sensible, but some people are not, and as a result 1000 banana skins are (estimated to be) strewn on the summit plateau alone in Ben Nevis (Source).

I think a simple rule of thumb is, if you are happy to throw it into the middle of your nicely maintained backgarden, then you may do so in the hill. For example, you may not mind throwing a centi-metre long black stalk of an apple. But I seriously doubt if you would happily throw banana skin on the middle of your well mowed lawn! Your neighbour would not be impressed, for sure. You may not mind throwing a half-eaten apple in your garden because your garden has an apple tree, which leaves many rotten apple on the ground anyway; then, you can do so in the hill, but only if there are many apple trees in the place. You may not mind leaving sweat in your garden, and then that would be fine on the hill, too. With this principle, you know there are very few things you would leave — that is what you should do on the hill. In short, if you take something to the hill, don’t leave it and make sure to bring it back, whether in your stomach or in your sack.

In fact, although a hill is much bigger than your garden, the environmental balance is much more fragile than your garden, especially in colder places like Scottish Highlands and arid places like alpine terrain or both. For example, Recycle IT 4U explains that it takes 6 weeks for a banana skin to decompose, whereas it takes 2 years in Scottish hills. In that sense, the above-proposed rule of thumb don’t throw away anything you would not on your backgarden is the absolute bare minimum.

As another example, toilet tissue may decompose after a month according to the same report. However, they hardly decompose after even 2 years out in the wild according to the academic research by Bridle and Kirkpatrick (2005) carried out in Tasmania. In practice, you should interpret toilet tissue does not decompose in the arid area.

2018/07/30 - 17:39 - Dehydrated Chocolate Chip Dessert packageDehydrated Chocolate Chip Dessert package
Used dehydrated camping-food package is perfect to store and bring back your rubbish in, including used tissues.

In Santa Cruz Valley in Peru, the fact ground is littered with toilet tissue everywhere implies the decomposing process to be very slow. I should note the number of the users of the place as toilet must be limited, given the fact during 8 days of our stay in the middle of the high season, we three were most likely to be the only users of the place. The terrain was not a moraine but a meadow below the forest limit with some significant vegetation. In comparison, high ground of many Scottish hills are far more barren than it. The fact suggests how slow the bio-degradation processs is in hills and mountains, save woody ones in tropical climate.

Seeing toilet-tissue-littered terrain and saddened, I took an extra care to find good place to bury my own human-waste, and made sure to bring back all the used tissues even in the basecamps, let alone in more barren high camps on moraine.

Let’s face it. To bring back used tissues is not a big deal. Only you need is a little waterproof plastic bag to store them. A humble sandwich bag does a sufficient job for it. Or even better, used dehydrated camping-food packages are perfect. The best things about them are (1) you will anyway throw them away later and so do not increase a total amount of garbage by reusing them and (2) the tiny quantity of food inevitably left in the packet has often overwhelming (and perhaps tasty) smell over odor of the human waste, even when you need to open the packet after use (for reuse etc).

I admit I have buried used tissues in many places in the UK over the years. To my knowledge that is more or less a standard practice by hill-goers in the UK, too. But the Peruvian trip was a wake-up call for me. I should not do it in over-crowded outdoors, or anywhere in practice. If you are sure you are the only visitor of the area in the next 10 years, OK, you can leave the used tissue or something with similar biodegrading timescale by burying them. But if not, which is 99.99999 per cent of the cases in the UK, I think we had better be more conscious.