By GABRIELLA GURNEY
Picture this: you’re on a hike somewhere, you’re about halfway up the mountain, and you realize you’re ready to stop for a quick break and a snack. Resting against a large boulder, you reach into your bag and pull out a granola bar and an apple. In a few minutes, you’re done eating, and you take a drink of water before zipping the granola bar wrapper securely into your bag. You throw your apple core off the trail a few feet into the woods. You continue on your way.
What’s wrong with this picture? You’re practicing responsible recreation: you’ve got proper footwear and equipment, you’re staying on the trail even when you encounter mud or puddles, and you’re packing out all of your waste. Or are you?
I’ve been on several hikes where I’ve witnessed friends, family, or other hikers I don’t know perform the ritual I’ve described above. “It’ll be fine, it’s biodegradable!” they say cheerfully as they throw their banana peel into the bushes.
There are common misconceptions about biodegradable waste that contribute to what we as hikers feel comfortable leaving on the trail. According to Merriam-Webster, “biodegradable” means “capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things,” but I’ve found most hikers take “biodegradable” to mean “will disappear in nature in a few days.”
While organic waste will certainly break down faster than something like glass or plastic, it still takes time to decompose. Estimates vary, but most seem to agree that it takes between three weeks to two months for an apple core to decompose, two to six months for a banana peel, and up to two years for orange peels. While one banana peel sitting on the trail for two months might not seem like a big deal, think about all the traffic the Adirondacks receive every year. The Adirondack Council estimates we receive 7 to 10 million visitors a year. That’s a lot of banana peels.
So our waste won’t break down as rapidly as we thought. What else might help to get rid of our refuse? Surely an animal will eat it, or something like that?
Peels or cores are the parts of food that we aren’t able to eat. This is the same for animals, and even if they can eat some of our organic waste, it’s probably not a natural part of their diet. This could cause digestive issues for animals, or worse, lead them to become dependent on food humans leave in the woods. Some refuse is completely ignored by wildlife: citrus, for example, is a natural insecticide, so even bugs won’t touch it.
Plants or animals that get moved from one place to another can have a huge impact on their new environment. Now, I’m not suggesting your orange or banana peel will single-handedly cause the decimation of the entire Adirondack Park, but I am suggesting it could have an impact on the area it gets thrown into simply because it’s not originally from there. Unless you’re hiking through a banana plantation or apple orchard, the leftovers from your snack aren’t native to the environment you’re moving through.
If you’ve been packing out all your waste besides organic in the past, you’re not a bad person. I have certainly been guilty of throwing orange peels or apple cores into the bushes in the past. But now that I’ve taken time to ruminate (and research), I’m changing some of my habits. That’s part of responsible recreation: taking time and care when exploring beautiful places, and continuing to learn and grow.
Gabriella Gurney is a research associate at Adirondack Research, and production and outreach coordinator for Green Goat Maps.