Leave No Trace Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly
Litter. What an interesting concept. Out of all the activities that we as humans participate in, littering might be the strangest of them all. As a species, we are really good at creating waste. However, we are also pretty smart and have implemented easy ways to dispose of waste properly. So, to create waste and then toss waste products improperly, with complete abandonment, without consent, and in inappropriate locations seems almost inconceivable. Right?
Whether it is food waste, human waste, or just a left over candy bar wrapper, choosing to litter or being careless in the handling of waste is first and foremost a personal choice. This may stem from a lack of connection and communal ownership of public spaces or perhaps a feeling that trash “is not my responsibility,” someone else will clean it up. And unfortunately, litter begets litter. Once trash is on the ground, it will, without a doubt, attract more trash. As Scouts, we have a greater responsibility than that.
Litter is any type of waste thrown where it does not belong. This can include, but is not limited to, chewing gum, wrappers, dog poop, paper, cans, bottles, plastic bags and cigarette butts. Not only is litter an unsightly mess; it is also detrimental to our environment. Litter poisons animals, damages plants, contaminates water and pollutes soil. This is a serious problem that risks the health of our planet and the beauty of our lands. According to Keep America Beautiful, an estimated $11.5 billion is spent each year in the United States on litter cleanup projects. That is an expensive solution to an easily solvable problem. As one of the largest users of public lands for camping and recreation, we have an obligation, as Scouts, to leave an area as good, if not better, than we found it.
Over the past year, the most common piece of trash that we have found outside is the single use plastic water bottle.This seemingly harmless bottle quickly turns in to 3 pieces of trash - the bottle itself, the label, and the cap. Tiny pieces of plastic like the cap and ring can choke wildlife, while the larger pieces leave behind unsightly social impacts. The plastic also take centuries to decompose, leaving an impact on our public land and watersheds for generations.
Cumulatively, Americans use over 50 billion single use-plastic water bottles a year, almost 167 bottles per person. 38 billion bottles end up in the landfill each year. End to end, they would circle the equator 217 times! Making these bottles also uses around 20 million barrels of oil and creates more than 2.5 tons of Carbon dioxide.
Here are a few simple things that you can do to help reduce your single use plastic consumption and help Leave No Trace!
- Invest in a reusable water bottle. Preferably a 32oz metal water bottle. Why metal? You can boil water in it if you are in an emergency, survival situation. Why 32ox, why not a 16 or 24oz? Most of your chemical water purification is so many drops or so many tablets per 32 fluid ounces (about 1 liter) of water. Don't need to be trying to guess or do math in a survival situation when you are in need of water.
- Keeping a full 5 gallon water jug in your car is another great way to ensure that you will always have access to enough clean drinking water.
- Take a cue from thru-hikers and reuse your single-use bottle rather than tossing it immediately. Thru hikers often use plastic bottles because they are super light weight, but their durability helps them last for weeks on the trail.
- Pack it in, pack it out. Adventure with a backpack so it's easier to pack your trash out!
- Plan Ahead and Prepare so that you know where you can access potable water during your adventure. Many parks have stations where you can fill your bottle or water jug before you leave. Bringing along a water filter is also a great way to refill along the trail.
- Recycle your bottles after using them. When these bottles are recycled, they are then used to make sleeping bags, shoes, playground equipment, park benches, and other plastic containers!
Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid pollution of water sources, avoid the negative implications of someone else finding it, minimize the possibility of spreading disease, and maximize the rate of decomposition.
In most locations, burying human feces in the correct manner is the most effective method to meet these criteria. Solid human waste must be packed out from some places, such as narrow river canyons. Land management agencies can advise you of specific rules for the area you plan to visit.
Contrary to popular opinion, research indicates that burial of feces actually slows decomposition (at least in the Rocky Mountains). Pathogens have been discovered to survive for a year or more when buried. However, in light of the other problems associated with feces, it is still generally best to bury it. The slow decomposition rate causes the need to choose the correct location, far from water, campsites, and other frequently used places.
Catholes are the most widely accepted method of waste disposal. Locate catholes at least 200 feet (about 70 adult steps) from water, trails and camp. Select an inconspicuous site where other people will be unlikely to walk or camp. With a small garden trowel, dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. The cathole should be covered and disguised with natural materials when finished. If camping in the area for more than one night, or if camping with a large group, cathole sites should be widely dispersed.
Perhaps the most widely accepted method of backcountry human waste disposal is the cathole. The advantages are:
- they are easy to dig in most areas.
- they are easy to disguise after use.
- they are private.
- they disperse the waste rather than concentrate it (which enhances decomposition).
- it is usually easy to select an out of the way location where you can be certain no one is going to casually encounter the cathole.
SELECTING A CATHOLE SITE:
- Select a cathole site far from water sources, 200 feet (approximately 70 adult paces) is the recommended range.
- Select an inconspicuous site untraveled by people. Examples of cathole sites include thick undergrowth, near downed timber, or on gentle hillsides.
- If camping with a group or if camping in the same place for more than one night, disperse the catholes over a wide area; don't go to the same place twice.
- Try to find a site with deep organic soil. This organic matter contains organisms which will help decompose the feces. (Organic soil is usually dark and rich in color.) Refer to the jars used to demonstrate decomposition. The desert does not have as much organic soil as a forested area. (See number 2 under Digging a Cathole below.)
- If possible, locate your cathole where it will receive maximum sunlight. The heat from the sun will aid decomposition.
- Choose an elevated site where water would not normally go during runoff or rain storms. The idea here is to keep the feces out of water. Over time, the decomposing feces will percolate into the soil before reaching water sources.
DIGGING A CATHOLE
- A small garden trowel is the perfect tool for digging a cathole.
- Dig the hole 6-8 inches deep (about the length of the trowel blade) and 4-6 inches in diameter. In a hot desert, human waste does not biodegrade easily because there is littleorganicsoil to help break it down. In the desert, the cathole should be only 4-6 inches deep. This will allow the heat and sun to hasten the decay process.
- When finished, the cathole should be filled with the original dirt and disguised with native materials.
CATHOLES IN ARID LANDS
- A cathole is the most widely accepted means of waste disposal in arid lands. Locate catholes at least 200 feet (about 70 adult steps) from water, trails, and camp. Avoid areas where water visibly flows, such as sandy washes, even if they are dry at the moment. Select a site that will maximize exposure to the sun in order to aid decomposition. Because the sun's heat will penetrate desert soils several inches, it can eventually kill pathogens if the feces are buried properly. South-facing slopes and ridge tops will have more exposure to sun and heat than other areas.
Though catholes are recommended for most situations, there are times when latrines may be more applicable, such as when camping with young children or if staying in one camp for longer than a few nights. Use similar criteria for selecting a latrine location as those used to locate a cathole. Since this higher concentration of feces will decompose very slowly, location is especially important. A good way to speed decomposition and diminish odors is to toss in a handful of soil after each use. Ask your land manager about latrine-building techniques.
Use toilet paper sparingly and use only plain, white, non-perfumed brands. Toilet paper must be disposed of properly! It should either be thoroughly buried in a cathole or placed in plastic bags and packed out. Natural toilet paper has been used by many campers for years. When done correctly, this method is as sanitary as regular toilet paper, but without the impact problems. Popular types of natural toilet paper include stones, vegetation and snow. Obviously, some experimentation is necessary to make this practice work for you, but it is worth a try! Burning toilet paper in a cathole is not generally recommended.
Toilet Paper in Arid Lands: Placing toilet paper in plastic bags and packing it out as trash is the best way to Leave No Trace in a desert environment. Toilet paper should not be burned. This practice can result in wild fires.
Urine has little direct effect on vegetation or soil. In some instances urine may draw wildlife which are attracted to the salts. They can defoliate plants and dig up soil. Urinating on rocks, pine needles, and gravel is less likely to attract wildlife. Diluting urine with water from a water bottle can help minimize negative effects.
Special Considerations for River Canyons: River canyons often present unique Leave No Trace problems. The most common practice is to urinate directly in the river and pack out feces in sealed boxes for later disposal. Check with your land manager for details about specific areas.
Visit LNT's Blog Poop Tube 101 for more info.