Pack It In, Pack It Out

2017-04-18 06:12:05.000 – Ryan Knapp, Weather Observer/Staff Meteorologist


There are a lot of things to like about spring hiking. Warmer temperatures means less layers, shorts, t-shirts, etc making for more comfortable hiking and slightly less items weighing down my bag. Footwear goes from crampons to MicroSpikes to eventually summer boots. Birds are singing their spring chorus in the woods adding a natural tune to the air. Everything smells great, especially as plants start budding. A palette of color starts to return to the scenery. And days get longer allowing for even more time to be out and about. However, there is one downside I all too often come across – rubbish left by hikers over the course of the winter.
When I go out on hikes, I typically carry along a small trash bag and a few pairs of neoprene gloves to pick up rubbish (the gloves are also handy to have on hand in case medical reasons occur). Some of this rubbish is the variety I can slightly forgive – maybe the winds ripped the items from a hikers hands and was carried away faster than they could run. Some of it is a head scratcher as items are exposed from melting and were obviously left there making it somebody else’s problem or they think snow is a magical decomposer. But the most common items I come acoss are the remnants of fruits people discarded – banana peels, apple cores, or orange peels being most common. And this isn’t a summit of Mt Washington issue; I come across all of these on pretty much every popular trail I hike on in the White Mountains.
When it comes to fruit remnants, it is simply trash regardless of it being biodegradable. First off, one man’s trash is another animal’s food. This might sound like a good thing but by introducing an apple core let’s say, you are introducing an alien food group to an animal’s diet. This could affect their health as it might not sit well with them. Or it could give them a new craving making them starve as they stop eating their natural diet. It could also have them moving into urban areas to seek their fix. This then has repercussions as food chains could become disrupted if an animal dies or seeks food elsewhere. So in general think, would this [insert biodegradable item] be here for animals if I weren’t?
Affecting wildlife is one thing but it is also an eyesore and one that will be around for awhile, especially in the alpine zone. The notion that “If it comes from nature, it will eventually return to nature” is true but decomposition takes significantly longer in the alpine zone. While picking up a banana peel and orange peels around the summit this week, I began to wonder, “how long do these really take to decompose up here?” In doing research I found numerous articles about a cleanup effort on Ben Nevis, Scotland – the UK’s biggest mountain and a mountain environment that is similar to ours. In one cleanup effort in 2009, 55% of the trash was made up of banana peels. In another, 10 out of 18 large bags of trash were made up of banana peels. The problem with banana peels was so bad that there were even some individuals that would dress in banana costumes at trailheads to try to spread the word. I don’t think the White Mountains have reached this point in either quantity or the need of costumed awareness, but the decomposition stats the John Muir Trust found are worth noting to prevent us from getting to that point.
In ideal conditions in compost piles with hot/humid environments, banana peels might take 3 to 4 weeks to break down. Above treeline, Banana peels take two years or more to break down. Orange peels? What takes 6 months in ideal conditions takes again 2 years or more to break down above treeline. Apple cores? Two months in ideal conditions can take 6 months to a year above treeline. So before you huck, drop, or bury a peel or core, think of it as trash and carry it out with you and leave no trace.
Mt Washington from Mascot Pond CliffLooking up at Mt Washington from a recent spring hike


Ryan Knapp, Weather Observer/Staff Meteorologist

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