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Minimizing micro-trash in the wilderness

Examples of micro-trash.

By MK Thompson

As most folks already know, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The year has been full of events to celebrate and create awareness of the precious resource that is wilderness.

But for people who haven't been able to attend those events or for those looking to do more, there are still many ways to celebrate and protect wilderness as well as all public lands. There is one particularly simple thing we all can do for our public lands that most of us don't think about - minimizing micro-trash.

What is micro-trash? It is litter of the least intentional kind - the smallest bits that escape from pockets and into the breeze. Micro-trash is more than just an unsightly reminder of human encroachment on wild lands. These tiny bits of litter are usually not biodegradable and can have adverse effects on wildlife by creating choking hazards or intestinal blockages.

Sure, we all pick up litter when we see it, but there are ways to keep this inadvertent litter from ever happening. For those of you who already know how to avoid this, thanks for your commitment. However, not everyone is an eco-genius. Read on for the most common types of micro-trash and how to prevent it.

Oft-littered items include the corners of snack wrappers from granola bars, fruit snacks, crackers, trail mix, energy gels, pouches of mini cookies and other delectable trail foods as well as stickers from produce. How often have you torn open a snack and tucked the torn off corner into your pocket? Most of the time that corner of the wrapper will make it all the way to a trash can, but sometimes not. Here are a few tips to avoid this unintentional littering.

Designate a pocket specifically for trash. That means that things will only be going in to this pocket. It is harder to accidentally litter from a pocket where nothing is being pulled out.

Bring a Ziploc bag specifically for trash. Storing the small bits in a larger container makes it harder for them to slip away.

Or, eliminate wrappers altogether by repackaging your goodies into a separate bag that seals with a zip or knot top.

Some energy gels can be purchased in bulk bottles that can then be transferred into smaller, reusable gel flasks.

Take the tiny stickers off produce before leaving home.

How many times have you misplaced a twist tie at home only minutes after setting it down? For this same reason, it is best to avoid twist ties when out on the trail. Use a bag that seals with a zip or knot top instead.

It seems odd to have to mention bottle caps from single-use bottles, but they are prevalent micro-trash. Even if your favorite trail beverage starts in a single-use bottle, consider transferring it to a nice reusable bottle.

One might not think of this as common micro-trash, but you wouldn't believe how many rubber trekking-pole tip covers I have found out on the trails. If you want your rubber tip to stay on and not become micro-trash, I suggest maybe gluing it on.

One more thing. Did you know that orange peels can take 10 years to biodegrade? Banana peels last a long time as well. Animals don't like to eat these any more than humans do.

Unfortunately, there will always be unintentional litter out there. Sometimes, it is a button, a shoelace tip, a flap of duct tape or a piece of busted sunglasses. But we can each do our part to make a difference. We can keep our pockets zipped and be diligent to assure that our belongings are secured. It will always be gratifying to walk in wilderness and find nature as it is where no one has left a trace.

MK Thompson is assistant for education, volunteer programs and visitor information services for San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education.