The 'biodegradable trash' myth

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By WESLEY HERMANN, Park Ranger

It has been said that cigarettes are the last socially accepted form of litter. To many of us, the idea that a cigarette butt is, in fact, litter seems obvious, yet the problem persists. Yet another socially accepted type of litter is all too common in our parks, trails and open spaces: food waste and other “biodegradable” litter.

Banana peels, orange peels, leftovers from picnics, and more are left behind. “But, those are all natural and biodegradable!” is a common justification.

So what’s the big deal?

The process for organic material to break down is not always a short one, and in a dry climate like ours this is especially true. Left out in a parking lot or a trail, it can take up to two years for something like a banana or orange peel to break down. Items like nut shells can take even longer. In the meantime there they sit, until someone — or something — picks them up. If even a small percentage of the many visitors to our natural areas left these items behind, they can add up quickly.

“Aha! So animals can eat our leftovers!” one might reply. This is true, unfortunately. You may notice a distinct lack of banana and orange trees (along with pistachio trees, Goldfish cracker trees, cookie trees and sandwich crust trees) here in the Pikes Peak region. As these are not natural food sources for wildlife, they often cause more harm than good, including long-term health issues.

Fruit peels, in particular, don’t make very appetizing morsels. Even when animals do scavenge our trash, it can lead to a host of problems. Food or food waste can attract wildlife to areas where people and their cars are more frequent. This increases the likelihood of conflict between wildlife and people, and food waste left near parking lots or roads can significantly increase wildlife’s risk of being hit by a vehicle. If a small rodent is attracted to food scraps near a road, it can also increase the odds that a predator like an owl or hawk could be struck as it hunts.

Habituation is another issue. Animals can grow dependent on humans for food, or even aggressive. Animals will learn that they can find “easy” meals near areas with people and may even develop behaviors where they will steal food, or worse. When an animal becomes aggressive, it may need to be relocated, which they may or may not survive. Wildlife may begin to congregate in an area with easy access to food, which, in turn, can increase the chance for the transmission of diseases between animals.

The saying that “a fed animal is a dead animal,” is often all too true. The best way to help wildlife is to let them do their thing, keeping them wild.

Finally, consider this. Imagine you had a neighbor who regularly threw their banana peels in your front yard. Would you be OK with this behavior? Probably not, because it’s unsightly and negatively impacts your enjoyment of your yard. Similarly, leaving waste along a trail, even if it’s biodegradable, negatively impacts the experience of others who wish to be outside without seeing someone else’s litter.

Many of us are taught to Leave No Trace when outdoors, and when it comes to biodegradable or “natural” waste, the same principles apply. Plan ahead and prepare, including planning how and where to dispose of trash. Dispose of waste properly. Leave what you find. Respect wildlife. Be considerate of other visitors.

Doing so will help keep our wildlife happy and healthy, and our parks and open spaces clean and beautiful. It also shows respect for the experience of other people. At the end of the day, biodegradable or natural litter is still littering. For more information about the Leave No Trace Seven Principles and how they’re promoted in Colorado Springs, visit ColoradoSprings.gov/RegionalParks.

Ranger Wesley Hermann is a park ranger for the City of Colorado Springs Trails, Open Space & Parks division (TOPS) and point of contact for Red Rock Canyon Open Space. This content first appeared in The Gazette’s Cheyenne Edition and is reprinted here with permission from Pikes Peak Newspapers. It is part of a monthly column titled, “Ranger Ramblings.”

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